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Pacheco v. State

Court of Appeals of Maryland

August 12, 2019

STATE of Maryland

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         Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Case No. 130184. Marielsa A. Bernard, Judge

         Argued by Eva Shell, Asst. Public Defender (Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender of Maryland of Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

         Argued by Todd W. Hesel, Asst. Atty. Gen. (Brian E. Frosh, Atty. Gen. of Maryland of Baltimore, MD), on brief, for Respondent.

         Argued before: Barbera, C.J.,[*] Greene,[*] Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.


         Barbera, C.J.

         [465 Md. 316] "The times they are a-changin’."

— Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’

         [465 Md. 317] It is by now well known that the laws in Maryland and elsewhere addressing the possession and use of marijuana have changed. Those changes naturally have compelled examination of how the affected laws are to be interpreted and applied consistent with the dictates of other law including, here, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

          Presented in this case is a question of first impression. That question, as framed in the brief of Petitioner Michael Pacheco, is

whether police are authorized to arrest a person for the criminal offenses of possession of more than ten grams of marijuana and/or possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, based solely on facts indicating that the person is committing the civil offense of possession of less than ten grams of marijuana.

          For reasons that follow, we answer that question in the negative.


          Facts and Procedural History

         On May 26, 2016, Officers Groger and Heffley, of the Montgomery County Police Department, were conducting a "routine foot patrol" in Wheaton, Maryland. Around 10:00 p.m., they noticed what they would later describe as a "suspicious vehicle" parked behind a laundromat "in a dark parking spot ... with the windows down.... and nowhere near the business itself."[1] The officers found it suspicious that someone would sit in his or her car rather than in the laundromat, which was open at the time. In Officer Heffley’s experience, "people take their laundry in and they stay in the [l]aundromat," because the laundromats in the area have "free Wi-Fi ... and TVs." As they approached the vehicle (a Chevrolet [465 Md. 318] Trailblazer), Officer Groger went to the driver’s side while Officer Heffley headed to the passenger’s side. Officer Heffley would later testify, after having his recollection refreshed, that he was "within a foot" of the vehicle when he smelled the odor of "fresh burnt" marijuana. Officer Groger also testified that he had detected the odor of burnt

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marijuana. He said the odor was "strong" but did not specify how far away he was when he detected it. Both officers could see that Mr. Pacheco was alone and seated in the driver’s seat. Officer Heffley observed a marijuana cigarette in the vehicle’s center console, which he testified he knew immediately was less than ten grams. The officer asked Mr. Pacheco to give him the "joint." Mr. Pacheco complied.

          Immediately thereafter, the officers ordered Mr. Pacheco to exit the vehicle and searched him. During the search, the officers discovered cocaine in Mr. Pacheco’s "left front pocket." The officers then searched the vehicle, whereupon they recovered a marijuana stem and two packets of rolling papers. The officers transported Mr. Pacheco to the police station, where they issued him a citation for possessing less than ten grams of marijuana and charged him with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute it.

          Mr. Pacheco moved to suppress the cocaine, arguing that the officers’ warrantless search of his person was illegal because, at the time of the search, the officers lacked probable cause to believe that he possessed ten grams or more of marijuana. The State countered that the odor "provided probable cause to search ‘both the vehicle and [Mr. Pacheco].’ "

          At the suppression hearing, the officers differed about the basis for the arrest. Officer Heffley testified that Mr. Pacheco was arrested for possessing cocaine, stating that before the cocaine was found, no basis for an arrest existed because Mr. Pacheco only possessed a small quantity of marijuana. Officer Groger stated that he "searched Mr. Pacheco incident[ ] to [an] arrest [for] the fresh burnt odor of marijuana," although he acknowledged that possession of less than ten grams would [465 Md. 319] be a civil offense "[i]f that was all that was recovered in the joint."

          The circuit court denied the motion to suppress the cocaine. In the court’s opinion, the possession of what appeared to the officers to be less than ten grams of marijuana gave them probable cause to arrest Mr. Pacheco and thereby to conduct a search of his person incident to the arrest. Mr. Pacheco then entered a conditional guilty plea, which preserved his right to withdraw the plea if he was successful in his appeal of the court’s ruling on the motion to suppress.

          On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals, in an unreported decision, upheld the search of Mr. Pacheco as incident to a lawful arrest. The Court of Special Appeals determined that Mr. Pacheco "was the driver and sole occupant of a vehicle that smelled of freshly burnt marijuana, and police observed a marijuana joint in the center console." Relying predominately on pre-decriminalization cases, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that "these circumstances gave the police probable cause to arrest [Mr. Pacheco]."


          Standard of Review

          Our review of a circuit court’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence is "limited to the record developed at the suppression hearing." Moats v. State, 455 Md. 682, 694, 168 A.3d 952 (2017). We assess the record "in the light most favorable to the party who prevails on the issue that the defendant raises in the motion to suppress." Norman v. State, 452 Md. 373, 386, 156 A.3d 940, cert. denied, __ U.S. __, 138 S.Ct. 174, 199 L.Ed.2d 42 (2017). We accept the trial court’s factual findings unless they are clearly erroneous, but we review de novo the "court’s application of the law to its findings of fact." Id. When a

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party raises a constitutional challenge to a search or seizure, this Court renders an " ‘independent constitutional evaluation by reviewing the relevant law and applying it to the unique facts and circumstances of the case.’ " Grant v. State, 449 Md. 1, 15, 141 A.3d 138 (2016) [465 Md. 320] (quoting State v. Wallace, 372 Md. 137, 144, 812 A.2d 291 (2002)).



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