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Batten v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

May 5, 2017


          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          BETHEL, JUDGE.

         Jesse Lamar Batten appeals from the denial of his motion for a new trial. He argues that the trial court erred in denying his motions to suppress and in admitting certain statements that he made to law enforcement officers. We disagree and affirm because the trial court did not err in denying the motions.

         Following a conviction, we view the evidence "in the light most favorable to support the verdict, " and the defendant "no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence." Everhart v. State, 337 Ga.App. 348, 348 (786 S.E.2d 866) (2016) (quoting Culver v. State, 230 Ga.App. 224, 224 (496 S.E.2d 292) (1998)). So viewed, the evidence[1] shows that the Ben Hill County Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation ("GBI") placed a tracking device[2] on Batten's vehicle as part of their investigation into Batten's drug distribution activities. On December 4, 2013, the vehicle tracker indicated that Batten had stopped at several locations associated with the distribution of narcotics. The tracker went dead during Batten's return trip home, and the GBI investigator monitoring Batten's activities conducted surveillance on the interstate to look for Batten's vehicle. The investigator observed Batten's vehicle and began following him, while informing the Sheriff's office of his whereabouts. Investigators from the Sheriff's office continued to follow Batten and conducted surveillance as he stopped first at the house of an associate who investigators believed may have also been involved in the distribution of methamphetamine, and later at an apartment complex. One of the investigators continued to follow Batten as he left the complex and drove into Ben Hill County. Shortly after crossing the county line, the investigator observed Batten cross the center line and decided to activate his lights and stop Batten out of concern that he may have been under the influence.[3] An officer in a marked patrol car assisted in the stop. The investigator instructed Batten to step out of his vehicle, requested identification[4] and proof of insurance, and asked whether Batten had anything illegal in the vehicle, which Batten denied. Another officer asked Batten if he had "a problem with [the officer] searching [Batten's] truck?" Batten replied, "No, go ahead." After officers discovered methamphetamine hidden in a box under the vehicle, Batten was placed in handcuffs.

         Batten spoke with police while handcuffed, and officers admit that he had not been informed of his Miranda rights; however, the State did not introduce these statements at trial. Batten was not taken into custody following the stop, but came into the Sheriff's office the next day to be interviewed regarding his drug distribution activity. Batten was informed of his Miranda rights prior to that interview, and he signed a form acknowledging them. During that interview, which was later played for the jury, Batten admitted to hiding methamphetamine in a box hidden under his vehicle. Batten was arrested sometime later.

         Prior to trial, Batten filed a motion to suppress evidence arising from the stop, arguing that officers lacked probable cause to stop Batten, and that Batten did not consent to the search of his vehicle. Batten also moved to suppress his statements made to police because he was not informed of his Miranda rights. The trial court denied these motions.

         A jury found Batten guilty of trafficking in methamphetamine and operating a vehicle containing a secret compartment. Batten filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied following a hearing. This appeal followed.

         Batten argues that the trial court erred in denying his motions to suppress.

While the trial court's findings as to disputed facts in a ruling on a motion to suppress will be reviewed to determine whether the ruling was clearly erroneous, where the evidence is uncontroverted and no question regarding the credibility of the witnesses is presented, the trial court's application of the law to undisputed facts is subject to de novo appellate review.

Johnson v. State, 305 Ga.App. 635, 636 (700 S.E.2d 612) (2010) (citation omitted). Because the relevant facts here are undisputed, we review the trial court's ruling de novo.

         (a) Batten first argues that he did not consent to a search of his vehicle, but merely acquiesced to the authority of the police. Batten argues that there were several police officers present, some of whom were shining flashlights, and that the State did not meet its burden in establishing that consent was freely and voluntarily given. Batten is correct that the State "has the burden of proving the validity of a consensual search and must show the consent is given voluntarily." State v. Jourdan, 264 Ga.App. 118, 120 (1) (589 S.E.2d 682) (2003) (citation and punctuation omitted). "Consent which is the product of coercion or deceit on the part of the police is invalid. Consent is not voluntary when it is the result of duress or coercion, express or implied." Id. at 121 (1) (citations and punctuation omitted).

The voluntariness of consent is determined by the totality of the circumstances; no single factor controls. The standard for measuring the scope of a suspect's consent under the Fourth Amendment is that of objective reasonableness-what would the typical reasonable person have understood by the exchange between the officer and the suspect. The appropriate inquiry is whether a reasonable person would feel free to decline the officers' request to search or otherwise terminate the encounter. Mere acquiescence to the authority asserted by a police officer cannot substitute for free consent. And, we are required to scrutinize closely an alleged consent to search.

Id. (internal citations and punctuation omitted).

         Even though there were several police officers present during the stop holding flashlights (as it was dark), the videotape of the traffic stop corroborates the officers' testimony regarding the consensual nature of the search yielding the methamphetamine sought to be suppressed. See Morris v. State, 239 Ga.App. 100, 101 (1) (520 S.E.2d 485) (1999) (consent voluntary where officer asked the defendant if he minded if the officer examined a matchbox, and the defended responded "no, go ahead."). Batten was not in handcuffs prior to the search, and there is no evidence that he was being threatened in any way, that he was misled, or that he was subject to a lengthy detention before giving his consent to search. See Kendrick v. State, 335 Ga.App. 766, 769 (782 S.E.2d 842) (2016) ("A consent to search will normally be held voluntary if the totality of the circumstances fails to show that the officers used fear, intimidation, threat of physical punishment, or lengthy detention to obtain the consent." (citation omitted)); State v. Westmoreland, 204 Ga.App. 312, 313-14 (2) (418 S.E.2d 822) (1992) (consent was just acquiescence where defendant consented to search only after an officer told him that the officer did not need a warrant). Moreover, the mere fact that four officers were present and holding flashlights when Batten was asked for permission to search his vehicle does not mean that his consent was merely an acquiescence to their authority. See Smith v. State, 165 Ga.App. 333, 334-35 (2) (299 S.E.2d 891) (1983) (consent voluntary where defendant was initially ordered out of his car at gunpoint, but police were no longer pointing weapons at him when he was asked for permission to search his vehicle). Rather, the officers testified that Batten was asked whether he would consent, and he did so. Compare Hollenback v. State, 289 Ga.App. 516, 519 (657 S.E.2d 884) (2008) (consent was not freely and ...

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