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State v. Harris

Supreme Court of Georgia

May 1, 2017

THE STATE
v.
HARRIS.

          HUNSTEIN, Justice.

         Following a September 2011 jury trial in Fulton County, Georgia, Appellee Quantavious Harris was convicted of felony murder and related offenses in connection with the April 22, 2009 shooting death of taxicab driver Stephen Anim.[1] Harris timely filed a motion for new trial claiming, among other things, that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to move to suppress text messages obtained from Harris' cell phone by law enforcement without a warrant. After a hearing, the trial court agreed with Harris and granted the motion. The State appeals, contending that the trial court's conclusion regarding Strickland[2] prejudice was erroneous. We agree and therefore reverse the trial court's grant of a new trial.

         1. At trial, the State adduced text messages that were sent and received by Harris' cell phone from April 21 through April 22, 2009, [3] focusing on the following messages which were sent hours prior to Anim's death:

Date

Time

Sender

Message

April 21

2:43 p.m.[4]

Mother[5]

“Man go get my strap man!”

April 21

7:09 p.m.

Harris

“Yeah but im bout 2 hit dis lick”

April 21

7:10 p.m.

Jayesha[6]

“I thought u been did dat”

April 21

7:12 p.m.

Harris

“Naw but I'm gon have 2 kill dis n****r”

April 21

7:13 p.m.

Jayesha

“Baby plz dnt do dat”

April 21

7:13 p.m.

Harris

“I need da money”

         The State also pointed to a message showing that Harris' co-indictee, Samuel "Handyman" Ellis, had access to, and used Harris' phone prior to the murder. This message was sent at 11:08 p.m., on April 21 and stated, "Dis Handyman um on my way Quan go ova Jay house."

         While trial counsel objected to the introduction of all text messages on the basis of hearsay and lack of proper authentication, she did not challenge the records based upon the State's failure to obtain a search warrant as required by OCGA § 16-11-60 et seq., and 18 USC § 2703. The text messages were subsequently admitted over these objections. On September 12, 2011, Harris was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

         Harris subsequently filed a motion for new trial and, after obtaining new counsel, he amended the motion, contending that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to move to suppress the text messages. Specifically, Harris argued that, because the State obtained the records with a court order instead of a search warrant, the text messages were obtained illegally and would have been suppressed. At the hearing on the amended motion for new trial, the trial court received testimony from both the lead investigator on the case and Harris' trial counsel; the State, however, neither adduced a search warrant for Harris' text messages into evidence nor questioned the lead investigator regarding the same.

         In its order granting Harris' motion, the trial court concluded as follows:

The contents of electronic communications less than 180 days old can only be obtained pursuant to a warrant issued after a showing of probable cause. See OCGA § 16-11-66.1; 18 USC §2703; OCGA § 17-5-21; Hampton v. State, 295 Ga. 665 (2014).
At trial, the State introduced the contents of text messages sent from Defendant's phone that were obtained by a court order, but not by a warrant. These messages were less than 180 days old at the time they were obtained. Defendant's trial counsel was not aware of the need for a warrant, and failed to file a motion to suppress illegally seized evidence. OCGA § 17-5-30.
Trial counsel's failure to file a motion to suppress was professionally unreasonable, as it was not an informed strategic decision based on reasonable professional judgment. See Smith v. State, 296 Ga. 731 (2015).
Defendant established a strong showing that had trial counsel filed a motion to suppress, the contents of the text messages would have been suppressed. Id. at 733. See also Hampton v. State, 295 Ga. 665. Absent the improperly obtained text messages, the remaining evidence against Defendant was not overwhelming.
Counsel's deficiency had a prejudicial effect on the Defendant, violating his Fourth Amendment rights and creating a reasonable probability that, but for the deficiency on the part of defendant's trial counsel, the results of the proceeding would have been different. Smith, supra; Hargrove v. State, 291 Ga. 879, 881 (2012); Battles v. Chapman, 269 Ga. 702, 707 (1998).

         The State filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that, had defense counsel timely filed a motion to suppress the text messages, the State could have cured its error by obtaining a warrant. In support of this argument, the State attached a search warrant and supporting affidavit to its motion as an exhibit, both of which were obtained subsequent to the hearing on Harris' motion for new trial. However, the State did not request the record be reopened so this new evidence could ...


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