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Huff v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

June 4, 2018


          BARNES, P. J., MCMILLIAN and REESE, JJ.

          Reese, Judge

         Jamarcus Huff appeals from the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence of a handgun that was found in a backpack after he was arrested for battery (family violence) and criminal trespass.[1] For the reasons set forth, infra, we reverse the trial court's ruling.

         Viewed in favor of the trial court's ruling on the motion to suppress, [2] the record shows that on January 10, 2017, at approximately 4:00 a.m., David Kelley, an Athens-Clarke County patrol officer, responded to a third-party 911 call that L. M. had been beaten up by her boyfriend. Kelley arrived at the apartment in question, where Huff was lying on the couch. When Kelley knocked on the door, Huff got up and, while wearing a backpack, went into a bedroom. Huff returned without the backpack and answered the door. Huff told Kelley that no one had been arguing or fighting and allowed Kelley in to see L. M. and a baby, both of whom appeared to be asleep.

         Kelley started walking back to the patrol car to leave, but the third-party caller arrived on the scene. Kelley took a picture of a text message on the caller's phone that the caller reportedly had received from L. M.'s phone number. The photo was introduced at the hearing and showed three text messages received at 3:15 a.m.: "[Caller, ] help me [J]ay just beat me up real bad with [the baby] in my arm please when u get this come here[.]" "I can[']t talk[.]" "Come get us please[.]"

         Kelley went back to the apartment to wake up L. M. As he approached the door, he heard yelling coming from inside the apartment. L. M. answered the door and tried to hide the right side of her face from Kelley's view. However, Kelley observed a large knot near L. M.'s right eye and forehead and blood around her lips. L. M. would not tell Kelley what had happened, only that she wanted to leave and that she had sent the texts so that the caller would pick her up. Kelley observed a "busted" cell phone on the floor, and L. M. indicated the damage had happened that night. L. M. acknowledged it was her phone and that she had texted the caller with it.

         When Kelley asked Huff how L. M. had been injured, Huff responded that Kelley should ask her. Huff asked if he could get his backpack out of the bedroom. Kelley retrieved Huff's backpack from the bedroom, and Huff put it on his back. Kelley met with another officer on the scene, and they decided to arrest Huff for battery (domestic violence). The officers removed the backpack from Huff's back "for officer safety[ ]" and placed him in handcuffs before escorting him to the patrol car, where Kelley searched him. Another officer searched Huff's backpack "[f]or officer safety and drug-related fruits of the crime[ ]" and discovered a handgun.

         Kelley was wearing a body camera during the encounter. At the suppression hearing, Huff introduced into evidence a copy of the video recording beginning with Huff's arrest. In the video, Huff can be seen wearing a backpack and sitting on a chair inside the apartment. Officers stood him up and put his hands behind his back to handcuff him, slid the backpack off his back, and told him he was being arrested for domestic violence.

         An officer then picked up the backpack from the floor, asking if it belonged to Huff and telling him that he would not be able to return to the apartment. Huff asked L. M. to give the backpack to his sister, which L. M. agreed to do. Instead, the officers took Huff and his backpack outside to the patrol car, telling Huff that they were bringing the backpack because "it was on his person when he was arrested." The walk to the patrol car took over one minute as Huff and the officers walked down several steps from the apartment door, crossed through a courtyard, walked through apartment buildings opposite the apartment in question, and walked down a sidewalk before searching Huff. An officer then placed the backpack on the trunk of the car and searched the bag.

         The trial court denied Huff's motion to suppress the handgun found in the backpack, finding that "Officer Kelley was justified to search the backpack for a weapon while [Huff] was still close enough to potentially grab the backpack." Thus, the court ruled that the search-incident-to-arrest exception to the warrant requirement applied. We granted discretionary review.

         "Unless clearly erroneous, the trial court's ruling on disputed facts and credibility at a suppression hearing must be accepted on appeal. However, where controlling facts are not in dispute, such as those facts discernible from a videotape, [the appellate court's] review is de novo."[3] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Huff's specific claim of error.

         Huff argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress because Kelley illegally seized his backpack by removing it from his person and possession before he searched Huff or placed him in handcuffs. Huff contends that the State showed no reasonable necessity to seize the property as Huff specifically requested the backpack be left with L. M., who explicitly stated that she would take charge of the property and deliver it to Huff's sister.

         Further, the search-incident-to-arrest warrant exception did not apply, Huff contends, because the search of the backpack occurred several minutes after the officers gained exclusive control over it and moved it to a separate location.

         The trial court did not address whether the State was authorized to seize the backpack. The State presented no evidence of any connection between the backpack and Huff's arrest and no showing that seizure of the backpack was reasonably necessary.[4] Moreover, the post facto justification by Kelley that he was searching the backpack for "drug-related fruits of the crime[ ]" is unsupported by the record. Huff was placed under arrest ...

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