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State v. Allen

Court of Appeals of Georgia

February 23, 2015

THE STATE
v.
ALLEN

Motion to suppress. Paulding Superior Court. Before Judge Osborne.

Judgment affirmed.

Dick Donovan, District Attorney, Steven J. Messinger, Assistant District Attorney, for appellant.

Andrew S. Fleischman, for appellee.

DILLARD, Judge. Doyle, P. J., and Miller, J., concur.

OPINION

Page 166

Dillard, Judge.

Jennifer Leigh Allen was arrested and charged, via accusation, with possession of methamphetamine. Allen filed a motion to suppress, challenging the lawfulness of the investigatory detention, during which she consented to the search of her purse where the methamphetamine was discovered. The trial court granted Allen's motion, and the State now appeals, arguing that the court erred in [330 Ga.App. 753] finding that the arresting law-enforcement officers had no reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify the detention. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

Construing the evidence to uphold the trial court's findings and judgment,[1] the record shows that around 9:00 p.m. on July 25, 2012, a Paulding County sheriff's deputy was patrolling a local shopping center parking lot in his marked vehicle when he noticed a red pickup truck, which he believed looked suspicious. Consequently, as he continued driving through the parking lot, the deputy ran the truck's tag number through the Georgia Crime Information Center (" GCIC" ) database, and, in doing so, learned that the truck's owner, William Couch, was wanted for a parole violation. The deputy then turned his vehicle around, at which point he saw the truck now parked and a male and a female, who appeared to have just exited the vehicle, walking toward a Mexican restaurant in the shopping center. Believing the male to be Couch, the deputy used his patrol vehicle's PA system to request that both individuals stop. The couple, however, ignored

Page 167

this request and continued into the restaurant.

After parking his vehicle and following the couple into the restaurant, the deputy saw the female, Allen, sitting alone in a booth, and one of the restaurant's employees informed the deputy that the male had exited out the back of the building. The deputy then approached Allen and asked her where Couch had gone. Allen replied that he was possibly in the restroom, but she was unsure of his whereabouts. But after checking the bathroom and determining that Couch was not there, the deputy ordered Allen to step outside for further questioning, and she complied. By this time, a second law-enforcement officer arrived on the scene, and during the ensuing questioning, Allen acknowledged that Couch had mentioned that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The second officer then told Allen to call some of Couch's friends to inquire as to his whereabouts and ultimately asked Allen if he could search her purse. Allen consented, and during the search, the officer found a clear wrapper containing methamphetamine.

Allen was later charged, via accusation, with possession of methamphetamine.[2] Shortly thereafter, she filed a motion to suppress the evidence garnered as a result of her detention and subsequent consent to the search of her purse. Specifically, she argued that the officers had no reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify her detention, and, therefore, her consent to the search of her purse was [330 Ga.App. 754] invalid. Accordingly, she concluded that the methamphetamine found by the officers in her purse as a result of that search should be suppressed as " fruit of the poisonous tree." [3]

During the hearing on Allen's motion to suppress, the deputy who first saw Couch's truck and then followed Couch and Allen into the restaurant testified that when he initially approached Allen, he did not suspect that she had committed any crime, but nevertheless wanted to question her regarding Couch. The deputy then added that he believed Allen was untruthful when she said Couch may have gone to the bathroom, and thus, she impeded his investigation. In addition, the second officer who arrived on the scene (and ultimately searched Allen's purse) testified that Allen was not free to leave the encounter and that detaining someone with information was lawful even if that person was not suspected of engaging in criminal activity. After the hearing concluded, the trial court took the matter under advisement and, one day later, issued an order granting Allen's motion to suppress. This appeal by the State follows.

At the outset, we note that on a motion to suppress, " the burden of proving the search was lawful is on the [S]tate." [4] And in reviewing a trial court's decision on a motion to suppress, " we construe the evidence most favorably to uphold the findings and judgment, and the trial court's findings on disputed facts and credibility of the witnesses are adopted unless they are clearly erroneous." [5] Additionally, because the trial court is the trier of fact, " its findings are analogous to a jury verdict and will not be disturbed if any evidence supports them." [6] That said, we owe no deference to the way in which the court below " resolved questions of law." [7] With these guiding principles in

Page 168

mind, we turn now to the State's contention on appeal.

In its sole enumeration of error, the State maintains that the trial court erred in granting Allen's motion to suppress, arguing that the [330 Ga.App. 755] law-enforcement officers had reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify detaining Allen and, ultimately, seeking consent to search her purse. We disagree.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, inter alia, that " [t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. ..." [8] In construing this amendment, the Supreme Court of the United States has set forth--including most notably in Terry v. Ohio [9]--three tiers of police-citizen encounters: " (1) communication between police and citizens involving no coercion or detention and therefore without the compass of the Fourth Amendment, (2) brief seizures that must be supported by reasonable suspicion, and (3) full-scale arrests that must be supported by probable cause." [10]

In a first-tier encounter, police may " approach citizens, ask for identification, ask for consent to search, and otherwise freely question the citizen without any basis or belief of criminal activity so long as the police do not detain the citizen or convey the message that the citizen may not leave." [11] Thus, a citizen's ability to " walk away from or otherwise avoid a police officer is the touchstone of a first-tier encounter." [12] But here, the deputy who observed Allen and Couch walking toward the restaurant first requested that they stop, then approached Allen as she sat in a booth and, shortly thereafter, directed her to accompany him outside. Given these circumstances, no reasonable person in Allen's position would have felt free to end the encounter, and, in fact, the second officer to arrive on the scene explicitly testified at the hearing that Allen was not free to leave. Accordingly, the officers' stop of Allen " was a second-tier, investigative detention that required the [officers] to have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting that [Allen] was or was about to be involved in criminal activity." [13]

[330 Ga.App. 756] As the Supreme Court of the United States emphasized in Terry,[14] a law-enforcement officer, " even in the absence of probable cause, may stop persons and detain them briefly, when the officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the persons are involved in criminal activity." [15] In doing so, the officer's action must be justified by " specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion, and the officer must have some basis from which the court can determine that the detention was neither arbitrary nor harassing." [16] Furthermore, while a mere hunch is not sufficient to render an investigative detention reasonable, " law enforcement officers are permitted to draw upon their own experience and training in

Page 169

assessing the circumstances in which they find themselves." [17]

In the case sub judice, the deputy who first saw Couch's pickup truck ran its tag through the GCIC database and determined that he was wanted for a parole violation. Recounting this fact, the State argues that the deputy was, therefore, authorized to initiate a traffic stop.[18] However, by the time the deputy learned that the truck's male owner, Couch, was wanted, the truck was already stopped and Couch and Allen were walking toward the restaurant. At that point, although the deputy certainly possessed a reasonable, articulable suspicion to detain Couch, he had no basis whatsoever for believing that Allen was either committing, or was about to commit, a crime.[19] Indeed, at the motion-to-suppress hearing, the deputy admitted that when he first approached Allen, as she sat in the restaurant booth, he had no [330 Ga.App. 757] suspicion that she had committed, or was about to commit, a crime. And while the deputy added that he believed Allen was untruthful when she told him that she was unsure as to where Couch had gone, the trial court, in granting Allen's motion to suppress, obviously found that her response did not provide an objective basis for a reasonable suspicion that she was obstructing the deputy in the lawful discharge of his official duties.[20] Thus, construed most favorably to uphold the trial court's judgment, we conclude that the court did not err in finding that the officers' detention of Allen was unreasonable.[21] Moreover, because Allen's consent to the search of her purse was the product of an illegal detention, it was not valid.[22] Accordingly, the trial court did not err in granting Allen's motion to suppress.

Judgment affirmed.

Doyle, P. J., and Miller, J., concur.


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