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Hall v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

August 23, 2019

HALL
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, P. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          DILLARD, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Following a bench trial, the trial court found Randall Hall guilty of trafficking in methamphetamine. On appeal, Hall argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence seized after a traffic stop and subsequent search of his vehicle. Specifically, he contends that the arresting officer unlawfully prolonged the traffic stop to allow for the arrival of a drug-detection canine. In addition, Hall maintains that the trial court erred in denying his claim that his counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to renew his objection to the unlawfully seized evidence during his bench trial. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         When considering a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, an appellate court must "construe the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to the factual findings and judgment of the trial court."[1] This, of course, means that the reviewing court

generally must accept the trial court's findings as to disputed facts unless they are clearly erroneous, although the reviewing court may also consider facts that definitively can be ascertained exclusively by reference to evidence that is uncontradicted and presents no questions of credibility, such as facts indisputably discernible from a videotape.[2]

         That said, the trial court is not required to "make express findings of fact after a hearing on a motion to suppress."[3] In such a case, the reviewing court similarly construes the evidence "most favorably to uphold the trial court's judgment."[4] And regardless, we review de novo the trial court's "application of law to the undisputed facts."[5]

         So viewed, the evidence shows that in May 2015, an agent with the Atlanta High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area ("HIDTA") Task Force was conducting surveillance on Elmer Moreno, a member of a drug trafficking organization, from which the agent recently seized over 200 pounds of methamphetamine. As a result of this surveillance, the agent learned that Moreno was frequently distributing methamphetamine from the parking lot of a Home Depot on Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Gwinnett County. Then, on May 8, 2015, the agent followed Moreno to the Home Depot and observed him having a conversation with a man standing next to a gray car with a temporary Tennessee license plate. After a few minutes, one of the other agents participating in the surveillance saw Moreno hand the man a bulky, white plastic bag, which the agents suspected contained illegal narcotics. Moreno and the other man then departed in their respective vehicles, and the agent began following the latter, intending to enlist the assistance of an officer in a marked patrol vehicle to conduct a traffic stop.[6] But no patrol officers were in the area at that time, and after following the gray car south on Interstate 85 and then north on Interstate 75, the agent lost the vehicle in heavy traffic. Nevertheless, after running the vehicle's license tag number, the agent determined that the vehicle was registered to Randall Hall.

         Not long thereafter, the HIDTA agent set up a remotely operated surveillance camera in the parking lot of that same Home Depot, which allowed him to monitor Moreno's meetings from a laptop computer. And on May 26, 2018, the agent observed Moreno's pickup truck pass him, apparently on the way to the Home Depot. Immediately, the agent contacted one of his partners, whom he asked to monitor the surveillance camera while he turned around to head back that way. Within a few minutes, the agent parked in a nearby lot and took over the surveillance. Upon doing so, he observed Moreno's vehicle pull up next to a gold Toyota pickup truck in the Home Depot parking lot. The driver of the gold pickup exited his vehicle, at which point the agent recognized him as Hall, the same man Moreno met with a few weeks earlier. Hall handed Moreno a yellow bag, and the two men then walked to the back of Moreno's pickup, where Moreno retrieved a bulky, white plastic bag from a toolbox and passed it to Hall, who then placed it in his own truck. The two men then spoke briefly before departing in their respective vehicles.

         Believing Moreno and Hall had conducted yet another drug transaction and that Hall would pass by where the agent was currently parked on his way to Interstate 85, the agent waited for Hall's truck. A few minutes later, the agent saw Hall's truck and followed it to a Chick-fil-A parking lot, where it entered the drive-thru. And as the agent pulled into the restaurant's parking lot, he noticed two Georgia State Patrol vehicles parked there. The agent then parked his vehicle, went into the restaurant, and identified himself to the two state troopers. He explained to the troopers his belief that a driver currently waiting in the drive-thru was in possession of a significant amount of narcotics, identified Hall's pickup truck to the troopers, and asked if they would follow Hall and, if possible, conduct a traffic stop. The troopers agreed, and exited the restaurant just as Hall was leaving the drive-thru.

         As Hall's vehicle pulled out of the parking lot, the troopers followed, and, shortly thereafter, they observed Hall's vehicle cross over the white line and change lanes without signaling. Consequently, one of the troopers activated his vehicle's blue lights to initiate a traffic stop. Hall-who was in the middle lane at the time-pulled over to the far left side of the road and stopped next to some road-side construction, leaving little room between his driver's side door and a ditch related to the construction. The trooper asked Hall to come back toward his vehicle, where there was more room to stand. Hall complied, produced a Tennessee license, and the trooper explained why he had stopped him. Based on Hall's nervousness and the fact that he kept reaching into his pockets, the trooper asked Hall if he could pat him down for weapons. Hall consented, resulting in the trooper discovering that he was carrying over $1, 000. The trooper then asked Hall what he was doing in the area, and Hall responded that he had just come from his girlfriend's apartment, which he claimed was behind the Home Depot. Finally, the trooper asked Hall if he could search his truck, but Hall refused to consent.

         Subsequently, the trooper returned to his vehicle and began running Hall's license and registration through the Georgia Crime Information Center database. And while doing so, the trooper contacted dispatch to request assistance from a K-9 officer. A few minutes later, after he could not determine via GCIC if Hall's vehicle was insured, the trooper exited his vehicle and asked Hall if he had paper copies of his vehicle's registration and insurance. Hall responded that he would retrieve them from his glove box, and as the trooper followed Hall to the passenger side door of his truck, the trooper smelled the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. After Hall located the documents, the trooper took them and walked back toward his vehicle to enter the information. At that point, a little over 15 minutes after the trooper initiated the traffic stop, the K-9 officer and his dog arrived on the scene.

         Upon approaching Hall's truck, the K-9 officer also noticed the odor of marijuana. The trooper informed Hall that the K-9 officer was going to have his dog conduct an open-air sniff. And shortly thereafter, the K-9 officer's dog alerted to the presence of narcotics and did so a second time as he circled the vehicle. Then, after conferring with the K-9 officer, the trooper informed Hall that he was going to search his truck, and, during the course of that search, the trooper recovered a large white plastic bag, containing an off-white crystal substance, which was later identified as methamphetamine. Additionally, the trooper discovered a pill bottle, containing a small amount of marijuana.

         Thereafter, the State charged Hall, via indictment, with one count of trafficking in methamphetamine and one count of possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. A few weeks after the indictment, Hall filed a motion to suppress the drugs seized from his pickup truck, arguing that the search and subsequent seizure was the result of an unlawfully prolonged traffic stop. The State filed a response, and several months later, the trial court conducted a hearing on the motion, during which the parties presented the evidence discussed above. In addition, the State played a video of the trooper's traffic stop of Hall, which had been recorded by the dash-cam in the trooper's patrol vehicle. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court took the matter under advisement. Nonetheless, it ultimately denied Hall's motion.

         Hall waived his right to a jury trial, and the case then proceeded to a bench trial, during which the State presented the evidence noted supra, as well as additional evidence from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic chemist, who confirmed that the off-white crystal substance found inside the large white plastic bag seized from Hall's truck was methamphetamine. Following the trial's conclusion, the trial court found Hall guilty on the charge of trafficking in methamphetamine.[7] Thereafter, Hall obtained new counsel and filed a motion for new trial, arguing, inter alia, that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to renew his objection to the unlawfully seized evidence when it was admitted during his bench trial. The State filed a response, and, ultimately, the trial court denied Hall's motion. This appeal follows.

         1. Hall contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop and subsequent search of his vehicle, arguing that the state trooper unlawfully prolonged the stop to allow for the arrival of the K-9 officer and his dog. We disagree.

         Hall concedes that the initial traffic stop of his vehicle was lawful based on his failure to signal and crossing over the white line.[8] Indeed, when an officer observes a traffic offense, the resulting traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution "even if the officer has ulterior motives in initiating the stop, and even if a reasonable officer would not have made ...


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