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State v. Walker

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

May 17, 2019

THE STATE
v.
WALKER.

          MILLER, P. J., RICKMAN and REESE, JJ.

          Reese, Judge.

         The State of Georgia appeals from the trial court's grant of the motion for new trial[1] filed by Christopher Walker, who had been convicted of burglary, criminal trespass, and two counts of armed robbery following a jury trial.[2] The court granted a new trial based on its conclusion that Walker received ineffective assistance of counsel due to his counsel's failure to file a particularized motion to suppress. The State contends that Walker's trial counsel made a strategic decision not to file a motion to suppress and that, even if counsel had provided deficient representation, Walker failed to show that he was prejudiced by the failure to file a motion to suppress. For the reasons set forth infra, we reverse the grant of a new trial to Walker. Viewed in the light most favorable to the trial court's ruling on the ineffective assistance claim, [3] the trial transcript shows the following facts. At about 1:10 p.m. on November 13, 2014, a DeKalb County police officer, D. A. Drummond, was driving down Fairington Parkway on patrol when he saw a green Honda parked in the grassy area along the street, facing the opposite direction. The Honda's trunk was open, and a man, later identified as Walker, was trying to load a large flat-screen television into the trunk. Officer Drummond turned his patrol car around and drove up the street in order to park behind the Honda and check out the situation. Before the officer parked, however, the Honda's driver suddenly sped away with the car's trunk still open, leaving Walker behind.[4] In addition to the television Walker was holding, there was a black duffel bag sitting on the grass near Walker.

         Officer Drummond parked so that Walker was in front of the patrol car, then approached Walker and asked him why the Honda had sped off.[5] Walker told the officer that he did not know why, nor did he know who was driving the Honda, even though he had been putting the television in its trunk moments before. Officer Drummond also asked Walker about the television and duffel bag. Walker responded that the items belonged to his cousin, that his cousin had asked for his help, and that his cousin had picked him up at his (Walker's) home.

         Officer Drummond decided to place Walker in the back seat of his patrol car while he (Drummond) tried to figure out what was going on.[6] Officer Drummond did not handcuff Walker before having him sit in the patrol car, nor did he place Walker under arrest. Officer Drummond testified, however, that, every time he had someone sit in his patrol car for any reason, whether or not the person was a crime suspect, he searched them for safety purposes. Therefore, after getting Walker's consent, the officer conducted a pat-down search of Walker before having him sit in the patrol car. During the pat-down, Officer Drummond found a "Halloween mask" in the front pocket of Walker's pants.

         Immediately after Officer Drummond placed Walker in the patrol car, another man suddenly walked up and approached the officer. The man identified himself as "Jabari Nibbs," and Nibbs spontaneously told Officer Drummond that he knew Walker and that the television and the PlayStation that was in the duffel bag[7]belonged to him (Nibbs). An officer who was assisting Officer Drummond checked Nibbs's criminal history and learned that there was an outstanding warrant for Nibbs's arrest.

         Then, as soon as the officers placed Nibbs under arrest pursuant to the warrant, the officers heard a police dispatch alert about an armed robbery that had just occurred at a nearby residence. The residence was approximately 30 feet from where Officer Drummond had parked his patrol car on Fairington Parkway, and there was a path that crossed an area of bushes and trees separating the house from where the patrol car was parked. According to Officer Drummond, the house was visible from his patrol car, and he testified that it would take "5 seconds, if that[ ]" to walk from his patrol car to the residence using the path.

         After hearing the armed robbery dispatch alert, Officer Drummond realized that Walker matched the description of one of the armed robbery suspects, and he placed Walker under arrest. According to Officer Drummond, less than ten minutes had passed from the time he initially saw Walker holding the television along Fairington Parkway until he heard the armed robbery dispatch alert.

         At trial, [8] one of the victims of the armed robbery testified that at least three men held her and her husband at gunpoint while the men "ransack[ed]" the house. According to the victim, the gunman and a second assailant were upstairs in the house, and she could hear them talking to a third person who was downstairs. Both victims testified that the assailant with the gun wore a mask like the one featured in the movie, "Scream," while the other man who was upstairs wore a gray Halloween-type mask with "big teeth." The assailants stole two flat-screen televisions, two PlayStation 3 consoles, several video games, their cell phones, and other items from the house. After the assailants left the house, the victims drove to a nearby Walmart to use a phone there to call 911.[9] At trial, one of the victims identified the mask found in Walker's pocket as the mask worn by one of the assailants. The other victim identified the items that Walker possessed when Officer Drummond approached him, i.e., the 55-inch flat-screen television, two PlayStation 3 consoles, and numerous video games, as items that had been stolen from their home during the armed robbery. In addition, during the investigation, officers found a second television, a black hoodie, and a "Scream" mask in the wooded area between the victims' residence and Fairington Parkway.

         The jury found Walker guilty of burglary, criminal trespass, and two counts of armed robbery, but found him not guilty of false imprisonment and three counts of aggravated assault. Walker filed a motion for new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Following a hearing, the trial court found that Walker's trial counsel was ineffective for failing to file a particularized motion to suppress.[10] The trial court ruled that Walker's detention was illegal because Officer Drummond had failed to articulate at trial the specific reason why he placed Walker in the patrol car. The trial court's order also stated that, if counsel had filed a particularized motion to suppress prior to trial, it "most likely" would have been granted. Based on this conclusion, the trial court granted Walker a new trial, and this appeal followed.

         In evaluating claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, we apply the two-pronged test established in Strickland v. Washington, [11] which requires a defendant to show that his trial counsel's performance was deficient and that the deficient performance so prejudiced him that there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the trial would have been different. Additionally, there is a strong presumption that trial counsel's conduct falls within the broad range of reasonable professional conduct, and a criminal defendant must overcome this presumption. Particularly relevant to this case, when trial counsel's failure to file a motion to suppress is the basis for a claim of ineffective assistance, the defendant must make a strong showing that the damaging evidence would have been suppressed had counsel made the motion. Lastly, unless clearly erroneous, we will uphold a trial court's factual determinations with respect to claims of ineffective assistance of counsel; however, a trial court's legal conclusions in this regard are reviewed de novo.[12]

         With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to the State's specific claims of error.

         1. The State contends that the trial court erred in finding that Walker's trial counsel's failure to file a particularized motion to suppress[13] constituted deficient performance, arguing that trial counsel made a reasonable strategic decision not to file a motion after investigating the facts surrounding the seizure of the evidence.

         "An appellate court evaluates counsel's performance from counsel's perspective at the time of trial."[14] "As a general rule, matters of reasonable tactics and strategy, whether wise or unwise, do not amount to ineffective assistance of counsel."[15] "The decision of whether to file a motion to suppress is a matter of professional judgment, and we will not judge counsel's trial strategy in hindsight."[16]Stated differently, "hindsight has no place in an assessment of the performance of trial counsel, and a lawyer second-guessing his [or her] own performance with the benefit of hindsight has no significance for an ineffective assistance of counsel claim."[17] Ultimately, a trial counsel's tactics and strategic decisions "are almost never adequate grounds for finding trial counsel ineffective unless they are so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have chosen them."[18]

         During the hearing on the motion for new trial in this case, Walker's trial counsel testified that, after reading the police reports, reviewing discovery, speaking with witnesses, consulting with her co-counsel, and speaking with the attorney for Jabari Nibbs (Walker's co-defendant), counsel did not believe that there was a basis for filing a motion to suppress, nor did she believe that she would have prevailed on the motion if she had filed it. Trial counsel testified that, in her opinion, the facts surrounding Officer Drummond's initial encounter with Walker, including the fact that the Honda sped away when the officer approached, were "suspicious enough" to justify a first-tier police-citizen encounter.[19] In addition, counsel believed that at least some of the evidence at issue (i.e., the television, mask, duffel bag, and contents of the bag) was legally seized and would have been admissible at trial, [20] so a motion to suppress would not have been successful. Accordingly, the record shows that counsel's failure to file a motion to suppress was not the result of negligence or oversight, but resulted from a reasonable conscious decision she made after considering all of the circumstances presented.[21]

         Further, as noted in Footnote 13, supra, Walker had been represented by other attorneys prior to trial counsel taking over his case in July 2015, and none of those attorneys had filed a particularized motion to suppress in this case, either. As a result, Walker is unable to show that trial counsel's decision not to file such a motion was so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have made the same decision.[22]

         2. The State also contends that the suspicious circumstances observed by Officer Drummond upon encountering Walker authorized the officer to briefly detain Walker while he (the officer) tried to gather additional information to explain what was going on and determine whether a crime was being (or had been) committed. The State argues, therefore, that the evidence at issue (i.e., the television, mask, duffel bag, and contents of the bag) was legally seized and, thus, a particularized motion to suppress would have lacked merit and been futile.

         It is axiomatic that the failure to file a motion to suppress does not automatically constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.[23] Rather, the defendant has the burden of making a "strong showing [in the trial court] that the evidence would have been suppressed had a motion to suppress been filed."[24] This is because "[i]t is not ineffective assistance of counsel to refrain from making a futile motion or filing a meritless motion to suppress."[25]

         (a) Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, there are three tiers of police-citizen encounters:

[A] first-tier encounter involves only voluntary communications between police and citizens without any coercion or detention by law enforcement; a second-tier encounter involves a brief detention of a citizen by police to investigate the possibility that a crime has been or is being committed; and a third-tier encounter is an arrest and must be supported by probable cause. It is well established that a seizure does not occur simply because a police officer approaches an individual and asks a few questions. Rather, an encounter escalates from a first-tier consensual interaction to a second-tier investigatory detention only when the individual is "seized" by the officer, i.e., only when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of the individual.[26]

         In this case, the undisputed evidence shows that Officer Drummond's initial approach of Walker was a legal, first-tier encounter.[27]

Even when officers have no basis for suspecting a particular individual [is involved in criminal activity], they may generally ask questions and ask to examine the individual's identification - as long as the police do not convey a message that compliance with their requests is required. A seizure within the context of the Fourth Amendment occurs only when[, ] by means of physical force or a show of authority[, ] a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.[28]

         Further, contrary to Walker's argument during the new trial hearing, there is no evidence that, prior to patting down Walker and placing him in the patrol car, Officer Drummond prevented Walker from walking away from the encounter. In fact, Walker specifically testified at trial that he did not walk or run away when the officer approached because he did not think anything was going on "[a]nd why [would he] run from the police if [he was not] doing [a] crime."

         When Officer Drummond patted down Walker and had him sit in the patrol car while the officer tried to figure out what was going on, however, their encounter rose to the level of a second tier.[29] "[A]n officer's reasonable suspicion that a person may be involved in criminal activity permits the officer to stop the person for a brief time and take additional steps to investigate further[.]"[30] Therefore, the question is whether Officer Drummond had a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify a second-tier encounter.

To meet the reasonable suspicion standard for conducting a second-tier investigatory detention, the police must have, under the totality of the circumstances, a particularized and objective basis for suspecting that a person is involved in criminal activity.[31] This suspicion need not meet the standard of probable cause, but must be more than mere caprice or a hunch or an inclination. The determination of reasonable suspicion must be based on commonsense judgments and inferences about human behavior rather than on scientific certainty.[32]

         Significantly, however, "[a] determination that reasonable suspicion exists need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct."[33]

         Here, the undisputed evidence (including Walker's own trial testimony) showed that, when Officer Drummond initially observed Walker, Walker was attempting to load a large, flat-screen television into the trunk of a Honda that was parked partially in the grass on the side of a street, where the only houses in the immediate vicinity were located on the other side of a wooded area. When the officer turned around and pulled up behind the Honda, the driver sped off, leaving Walker standing there with the television and duffel bag. Walker told Officer Drummond that the television and duffel bag belonged to his cousin and that he was helping his cousin move. When the officer asked Walker who was driving the Honda, however, Walker claimed that he did not know. We conclude that these circumstances were sufficient to create a reasonable suspicion that Walker may have been involved in criminal conduct, so that Officer Drummond was authorized to briefly detain Walker while investigating the situation further.[34]

         Then, after conducting a pat-down search for safety purposes, Officer Drummond placed Walker in the patrol car without handcuffs. Almost immediately thereafter, Nibbs spontaneously walked up to the officer and said that he knew Walker and that the television and the items in the duffel bag belonged to him (Nibbs). This demonstrated that there was some relationship between Nibbs and Walker, and the contradiction between Nibbs's claim to the items, and Walker's statement that the items belonged to his cousin, justified Officer Drummond's further investigation into the situation. Then, when the officer assisting Officer Drummond checked Nibbs's criminal history, the officer found out that Nibbs had an outstanding arrest warrant and placed him under arrest. And, within moments, the officers heard the armed robbery dispatch alert describing suspects who ...


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