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Zeigler v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

June 21, 2019

ZEIGLER
v.
THE STATE

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

          Reese, Judge.

         Following a bench trial, Melannie Zeigler was convicted of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, distribution of methamphetamine, conspiracy to violate the Georgia Controlled Substances Act, violation of the terms of her oath as a public officer, and crossing the guard lines with drugs.[1] Prior to trial, Zeigler filed a motion to suppress statements she made as a government employee that she contended were not free and voluntary, under the United States Supreme Court's decision in Garrity v. New Jersey.[2]

         On appeal, Zeigler argues that the trial court erred in denying her motion. She also contends that the evidence is insufficient to support her conviction for violating her oath of office. Because the trial court erred in denying Zeigler's motion to suppress, we reverse her convictions and remand the case to the trial court with direction to grant Zeigler's motion.

         Giving due deference to the trial court's findings of fact, [3] our review of the transcript of the Jackson-Denno[4] hearing and the audio recording of the interview reveals the following. In July 2016, Zeigler began working as a front desk operator, or "dispatcher," in the Habersham County jail. Zeigler, who was not a P.O.S.T.-certified law enforcement officer, [5] testified at the hearing that this was her first law-enforcement-related job, that she had previously worked for a drycleaner and a blood bank, and that she had received no training when she started working at the jail. Zeigler testified that she had never arrested anyone, that she did not have the authority to arrest anyone, that she had never been trained on how to conduct an investigation or interview, and that she had never conducted an investigation or interview.

         Zeigler testified that she had taken "male[ inmate]s from upstairs [in the jail] to the room where they do the investigations, and it is the patrol room, slash, investigations [room]." With respect to the hierarchy within the Habersham County Sheriff's Office ("Sheriff's Office"), Zeigler testified that she was "on the very bottom[ ]" among the staff and that she took orders from other employees.

         Zeigler testified that she had read and understood the internal policies of the Sheriff's Office. A copy of those policies is not part of the record on appeal. We thus accept the trial court's finding that "[t]hose policies . . . state that refusal to comply with an internal investigation by the internal affairs deputy or his designee is only a grounds for dismissal or discipline if there has been an order to answer said questions."

         On October 17, 2017, the Habersham County Sheriff contacted Georgia Bureau of Investigations ("GBI") Special Agent Clay Bridges to request assistance in a criminal investigation regarding the possibility that one of his staff members was going to try to smuggle methamphetamine into the jail that night. The Sheriff informed Agent Bridges that his office had intercepted some jail phone calls and that "Zeigler's telephone number had been given to someone on the street for the purpose of picking up methamphetamine and bring[ing] it into the jail, and that [Zeigler's] first name . . . had actually been used in one of the conversations."

         Agent Bridges met with Hannah Shearer and Jeremy Eller, who were both task force agents with the Sheriff's Office who had been assigned to the multi-jurisdictional Appalachian Regional Drug Enforcement Office. The team conducted a surveillance on Zeigler as she traveled from her home to her shift at the Sheriff's Office that evening. Agent Bridges approached Zeigler in the parking lot of the Sheriff's Office prior to her shift, asked her if she would speak with him, "told her that [he] had informed her work that she may be late[, ] and asked if she would go to the administration building with [him]." That building was a separate office space in a trailer located next to the jail, where Zeigler testified she had interviewed to be hired the year before.

         An audio recording of the ensuing interview was played during the Jackson-Denno hearing and introduced into evidence. As the trial court found, At no time [were] Miranda[6] or Garrity warnings given to [Zeigler].

Initially[, Zeigler] denie[d] having ever brought contraband into the jail but this assertion change[d] when she emptie[d] her pocket and Agent Bridges discover[ed] a note that [Zeigler] claim[ed was] from [an i]nmate[.] [Zeigler] explain[ed] the content of the note (State's Exh. 2) by stating that she did on one occasion give [the inmate] a cigarette. She also confesse[d] to having used methamphetamine within the [past] month. Agent Bridges then obtain[ed] consent to search her vehicle while Agent Shearer [sat] with the Defendant. Agent Shearer and the Defendant continue[d] to speak while Agent Bridges [was] searching the vehicle and the recorder continue[d] to run. Eventually [Zeigler] admit[ted] to bringing methamphetamine into the jail and providing it to [the i]nmate.

         After the interview concluded, Zeigler was arrested, and her employment was terminated.

         The trial court denied the motion to suppress, finding "no evidence of any express threats" and that Zeigler's subjective belief that her job would be terminated if she did not answer the questions of Agents Bridges and Shearer was not objectively reasonable under the totality of the circumstances. That belief was specifically not reasonable, the court found, "in light of [Zeigler's] admitted understanding of the policies and [procedures] of the . . . Sheriff's Office and her belief that this was a criminal investigation."

         After the trial court denied her motion to suppress, Zeigler waived her right to a jury trial, and the parties stipulated to admission at the bench trial of all evidence adduced at the Jackson-Denno hearing. After considering the additional evidence produced by the State at trial, [7] the court found Zeigler guilty of the counts relating to October 10, 2017 (a week before the investigation and arrest): possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, distribution, and conspiracy to distribute, as well as violation of the terms of her oath as a public officer by agreeing to deliver methamphetamine to an inmate and crossing the guard lines at the jail with methamphetamine on October 10.[8] This appeal followed.

[O]nly voluntary incriminating statements are admissible against an accused at trial, and it is the State's burden to prove the voluntariness of a confession by a preponderance of the evidence. After the determination is made by the trial court that the State has met its burden and that a defendant's statement is freely and voluntarily given in compliance with Jackson v. Denno, [9] the trial court may permit the statement to come into evidence.[10]

         "In reviewing a trial court's determination regarding whether a statement is voluntary, [the appellate court] defer[s] to the trial court's findings of fact unless clearly erroneous, but [the appellate court] review[s] de novo the trial court's application of the law to undisputed facts."[11] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Zeigler's claims of error.

         1. Zeigler argues that the trial court erred in admitting her statements into evidence and in finding that it was not reasonable for her to believe that, under the circumstances, ...


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