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State v. Edwards

Court of Appeals of Georgia

May 7, 2015

THE STATE
v.
EDWARDS et al

Cert. applied for.

Motion to suppress. Cobb Superior Court. Before Judge Cox, pro hac vice.

D. Victor Reynolds, District Attorney, Daniel J. Quinn, Assistant District Attorney, for appellant.

David D. Marshall; Jill E. Stahlman; Lane & Lane, Charles W. Lane, for appellees.

OPINION

Page 431

Andrews, Presiding Judge.

Leonard Adrian Edwards and Ashley McMillain were jointly indicted on charges of trafficking in marijuana by possession of more than ten pounds of marijuana.[1] Edwards filed a pre-trial motion to suppress evidence obtained from his residence as a result of: (1) an initial entry by police officers into the residence without a search warrant; and (2) a subsequent re-entry and search of the residence by the officers pursuant to a search warrant. McMillain, who also resided at the residence, adopted and joined in the motion to suppress. After a hearing on the motion, the trial court entered an order granting the motion to suppress.[2] Pursuant to OCGA § 5-7-1 (a) (4), the State brings this pre-trial appeal claiming that the trial court erred by granting the motion to suppress evidence found by officers in the residence pursuant to the search warrant. For the following reasons, we affirm the suppression order in part and reverse in part.

On review of a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, " the trial court's findings on disputed facts will be upheld unless clearly erroneous, and its application of the law to undisputed facts is subject to de novo review." Barrett v. State, 289 Ga. 197, 200 (709 S.E.2d 816) (2011).

At the hearing on the motion to suppress, police officers gave the following testimony: On the basis of information provided in an anonymous phone call, Cobb County narcotics officers approached the residence occupied by Edwards and McMillain to conduct a so-called " knock and talk," for the purpose of investigating suspicions of illegal drug activity at the residence. The State does not dispute that, when the officers initially knocked on the door of the residence, they had no probable cause for issuance of a warrant to enter and search the residence, nor did they have probable cause and exigent circumstances necessary to justify an immediate entry and search of the residence. A man (later identified as Edwards) opened the door of [332 Ga.App. 343] the residence in response to the officers' knock, and the officers (who were uniformed and identified themselves as police officers) immediately smelled the strong odor of raw marijuana coming from inside the residence. One of the narcotics officers who smelled the marijuana recognized the odor of marijuana because he was trained to detect the odor, and because he had experienced the smell of marijuana in hundreds of cases handled during his career. As the officers stood

Page 432

at the open door and explained to Edwards why they were there, Edwards moved back and to the side, going behind the open door. Acting for their own safety, the officers stepped into the residence, just inside the door, and grabbed and secured Edwards. Officers found a pistol and $7,000 in cash on Edwards's person. Once inside the door, one of the officers could see from that position what appeared to be a large amount of raw marijuana a few feet away in clear plastic bags " pretty much everywhere in the kitchen." Within seconds after entering the residence to secure Edwards, the officers heard heavy footsteps of someone running upstairs in the residence in the direction of the stairs that led from the first floor to the second floor. The officers, who were near the bottom of the stairs, went up the stairs to investigate the potential threat. When they reached the top of the stairs, officers saw a man (later identified as Stewart) run through a room and jump out the second floor window of the residence. At that point, the officers left the residence, secured the door, and waited outside while one of the officers applied for a warrant to search the residence.

As a basis for the search warrant, the officer provided an affidavit to a magistrate court judge setting forth facts supporting the claim that there was probable cause to believe that criminal activity -- possession of a large quantity of marijuana -- was occurring inside the residence. Aside from the anonymous phone call, the only facts set forth in the application for the warrant were that officers went to the door of the residence to conduct a " knock and talk" investigation, and that, when the occupant of the residence opened the door in response to the knock, one of the officers, who was trained to recognize the odor of marijuana, " smelled the strong odor of green marijuana coming from the residence." On that basis, the judge granted the search warrant, and about 45 minutes after the initial entry into the residence, the officers re-entered the residence and conducted a search pursuant to the warrant. During this search, police found about ten pounds of marijuana in the kitchen (the same marijuana officers saw during the prior entry to secure Edwards), additional marijuana in the living room and upstairs, and other narcotics in the kitchen area.

[332 Ga.App. 344] In its order granting the motion to suppress, the trial court first considered the testimony from police officers that they initially entered the residence without a warrant out of concern for their own safety in response to Edwards's movements at the open door. To protect against unnecessary intrusions into a private residence, the Fourth Amendment imposes a warrant requirement on police who seek to enter the residence for purposes of search or arrest. Welsh v. Wisconsin, 466 U.S. 740, 748 (104 S.Ct. 2091, 80 L.Ed.2d 732) (1984). Although the Fourth Amendment did not prohibit the officers from approaching the residence and conducting the " knock and talk" investigation at the door ( State v. Able, 321 Ga.App. 632, 635 (742 S.E.2d 149) (2013)), to justify the nonconsensual, warrantless intrusion into the residence, there must have existed probable cause for an arrest or search inside the residence, and a showing of exigent circumstances. Threatt v. State, 240 Ga.App. 592, 595 (524 S.E.2d 276) (1999). In the present case, the trial court found a lack of exigent circumstances by concluding that testimony from the officers that they entered the residence out of concern for their own safety was not credible. Accordingly, the trial court ruled that " law enforcement [officers] were not lawfully inside the house prior to issuance of any search warrant," and excluded testimony or other evidence obtained as a result of the illegal entry. But the trial court also found that the Fourth Amendment did not prohibit admission of evidence that, prior to the illegal entry, an officer lawfully present at the door of the residence recognized the odor of marijuana coming from inside the residence. The State does not contest the trial court's ruling that the officers' initial warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment.

The trial court then considered the validity of the search warrant. In considering this issue, the trial court found that the officers were lawfully at the front door of the residence pursuant to the " knock and talk" investigation, that Edwards opened ...


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