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Miller v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

September 9, 2019


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


         Following trial, a jury convicted Harold Miller of one count of theft by taking, four counts of aggravated assault, one count of aggravated battery, one count of reckless conduct, two counts of obstruction of a law-enforcement officer, one count of fleeing from a law-enforcement officer, and one count of theft by receiving. On appeal, Miller challenges the sufficiency of the evidence as to several of his convictions and further contends that the trial court erred in denying his claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, [1] the evidence shows that on October 3, 2014, Audrelia Harris and her mother drove to a repossession impound lot in Forest Park to reclaim her vehicle, which had been taken there. After Harris paid the fee, an employee retrieved her vehicle from inside the fenced-in lot and parked it-with the engine still running-next to her mother's vehicle just outside the gate. And while Harris continued speaking to one of the impound lot's employees at a kiosk near the gate, her mother noticed a man-later identified as Miller-walking on the side of the road toward where she was parked. Then, upon reaching Harris's still-running vehicle, Miller jumped into the driver's seat and sped away while the mother yelled and honked the horn to alert her daughter and the impound employee of what was transpiring. Immediately, the owner of the impound lot and one of his employees jumped into the owner's tow truck and gave chase.

         Within a few minutes, the two pursuers noticed that Miller had stopped at a red light, at which point, the owner blocked Miller's path with the tow truck. The employee then exited the truck and ran to the driver's side window of Harris's vehicle to confront Miller. But Miller immediately threw the vehicle into reverse, forcing the employee to jump onto the hood to avoid being hit. Miller then drove forward, swerved back and forth in order to throw the employee off the hood (which he quickly succeeded in doing), and then sped away. Subsequently, the owner drove his employee to a nearby fire station, where emergency medical technicians began treating him for injuries to his elbow, knees, and back. And while there, the impound-lot owner contacted police and one of his other employees, who he then had use a computer program to track Harris's vehicle via a previously installed GPS tracker. With this assistance, police officers tracked the vehicle to a motel on Tara Boulevard, where Miller had apparently abandoned it.

         Shortly thereafter, based on surveillance photos from security cameras at the impound lot and motel, as well as interviews with a few women who had been staying at another motel frequented by the man ultimately identified as Miller, a detective with the Forest Park Police Department determined that the suspect in the theft of Harris's vehicle went by the street nickname of "Bull" and was possibly named Harold Turner. Consequently, the detective obtained an arrest warrant for Harold Turner and passed the information, including a physical description, on to the Clayton County Sheriff's Office.

         On October 10, 2014, one week after the theft of Harris's vehicle, a Clayton County sheriff's deputy received information from a confidential informant that Bull was at an abandoned house on Tara Road. So, at around 8:30 p.m. that evening, four uniformed deputies-driving in two separate marked vehicles-went to the house, intending to make an arrest. Approaching from two different directions, Deputies Manning and Kearns parked just south of the house, while Deputies Hogan and Montford parked to the north. And given the time of night and the fact that the home was abandoned and had no lighting, the deputies were forced to use flashlights as they approached the house via two gravel driveways separated by approximately a few yards. Shortly after the deputies began their approach, Deputies Manning and Kearn saw a white male-who fit the description of Bull and was later identified as Miller-run toward the back of the property where a white van was parked. Deputy Manning yelled, "Sheriff's Office! Show me your hands!" But Miller, ignoring the deputy's command while looking straight at him, jumped into the driver's seat of the van and started the engine. Deputy Manning yelled at Miller to exit the vehicle, but instead, Miller began driving toward the two deputies, who drew their weapons and ducked behind a nearby tree as the van then veered past them to their right.

         Meanwhile, separated from Deputies Manning and Kearns by only a few yards but in nearly complete darkness, Deputies Hogan and Montford heard Deputy Manning identify himself as a sheriff and order someone to stop but could not initially see to whom the order was directed. A moment later, they heard an engine revving up and tires screeching. As both Deputies Hogan and Montfort drew their weapons, they saw a white van accelerating directly toward them. Fearing he could not fire his weapon without hitting Deputy Montford, who was slightly ahead of him, Deputy Hogan dove out of the way as the van bore down on them. But Deputy Montford fired several shots at Miller, with one hitting him, and then dove out of the van's way, avoiding being struck by mere inches. As the van sped off, the deputies notified dispatch that shots had been fired and issued a BOLO, before returning to their vehicles in an attempt to follow Miller.

         A few miles away, Sergeant Arnzen-another Clayton County sheriff's deputy-was on patrol in a marked vehicle when he heard the dispatch that shots had been fired and the BOLO for the white van. And already aware that the deputies had planned to execute the arrest warrant for Bull at the Tara Road address that night, Sergeant Arnzen headed in that direction. Then, less than two miles away from the house, Sergeant Arnzen spotted a white van driving slowly and weaving. The van turned on a dead-end street and, upon reaching the cul-de-sac, drove into the yard of a home, nearly hitting the house before coming to a stop. As Sergeant Arnzen exited his patrol vehicle and approached the van, he noticed that the driver matched the description for Bull. Sergeant Arnzen then drew his weapon and loudly shouted, "Sheriff's Office! Stop the vehicle! Show me your hands!" Miller ignored the sergeant's commands and instead continued trying to drive through the yard until the front end of the van pushed up against some tall shrubs. Sergeant Arnzen repeated his orders to stop the vehicle, but Miller again refused to comply, responding, "Fuck you, I'll hit you too." Miller then threw the van in reverse, at which point, Sergeant Arnzen holstered his weapon and dove into the van through the open driver's side window. He then shoved Miller over, and-with his legs hanging outside the window-forced the van's gearshift into park. Once the van stopped, Sergeant Arnzen climbed out of the vehicle, drew his weapon, and held Miller at gunpoint until the other deputies arrived.

         Upon the arrival of backup, Sergeant Arnzen requested an ambulance in light of Miller's gunshot wound, and the ambulance then transported Miller to a local hospital. In the aftermath of Miller's arrest, he admitted that he was known as "Bull," but the deputies determined his identity was Harold Miller rather than Turner. The deputies also learned that the white van belonged to the owner of a local restaurant and had been stolen earlier that day when the owner's son left the keys in the ignition while unloading groceries.

         Thereafter, the State charged Miller, via indictment, with one count of theft by taking (relating to the theft of Harris's vehicle), and one count each of aggravated assault, aggravated battery, and reckless conduct (all relating to the impound-lot employee's attempt to thwart the theft of Harris's vehicle). In the same indictment, the State also charged Miller with two counts of obstruction of a law-enforcement officer, one count relating to his refusal to obey Deputy Manning's commands and the other relating to his refusal to obey Sergeant Arnzen's; five counts of aggravated assault upon a law-enforcement officer (relating to his attempts to hit each of the deputies with the van); one count of fleeing from a law-enforcement officer (relating to his refusal to obey Sergeant Arnzen's order to stop the van); and one count of theft by receiving (relating to the stolen white van).

         The case ultimately proceeded to trial, during which the State submitted the evidence noted above. In addition, the State called as witnesses the two women who lived at the motel where Miller often stayed. Both women identified Miller as the person they knew by the nickname "Bull." And one of the women further testified that, shortly after the October 3, 2014 theft of Harris's vehicle, Miller bragged about stealing a car and someone trying to stop him by jumping onto the vehicle's hood. Then, at the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Miller guilty on the count of theft by taking, four counts of aggravated assault (specifically those relating to the impound employee, Deputies Montford and Hogan, and Sergeant Arnzen), the count of aggravated battery as to the impound-lot employee, the count of reckless conduct, the two counts of obstruction of a law-enforcement officer, the count of fleeing from a law-enforcement officer, and the count of theft by receiving. The jury found Miller not guilty on the counts of aggravated assault as to Deputies Manning and Kearns.

         Afterward, Miller obtained new counsel and filed a motion for new trial, in which he argued, inter alia, that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. The State filed a response, and the trial court conducted a hearing on the motion, during which Miller's trial counsel testified. Not long thereafter, the court issued an order denying Miller's motion. This appeal follows.

         1. In seven separate enumerations of error, Miller contends that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions of aggravated assault upon Sergeant Arnzen and Deputies Montford and Hogan, obstruction of Sergeant Arnzen and Deputy Manning, fleeing from Sergeant Arnzen, and theft by receiving of the white van. In doing so, Miller concedes that he committed the acts alleged in the indictment but, nonetheless, maintains that the evidence was insufficient because the deputies and sergeant were not lawfully discharging their duties at the time he committed those acts. We disagree.

         When a criminal conviction is appealed, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, and the appellant no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence.[2] And in evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence, we do not weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility, but "only determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt."[3] Thus, the jury's verdict will be upheld so long as there is "some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case."[4] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn to Miller's specific claims concerning the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions. And to do so, we will first address his contention that the officers who confronted him were not lawfully discharging their duties.

         The Supreme Court of the United States has construed the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution[5] so as to set forth three tiers of police-citizen encounters:[6] "(1) communication between police and citizens involving no coercion or detention . . ., (2) brief seizures that must be supported by reasonable suspicion, and (3) full-scale arrests that must be supported by probable cause."[7]

         In first-tier encounters, police may "approach citizens, ask for identification, ask for consent to search, and otherwise freely question the citizen without any basis or belief of criminal activity so long as the police do not detain the citizen or convey the message that the citizen may not leave."[8] But is well settled that a citizen's ability to "walk away from or otherwise avoid a police officer is the touchstone of a first-tier encounter."[9] In fact, even running from police during a first-tier encounter is "wholly permissible."[10] And, of course, an individual may "refuse to answer or ignore the request and go on his way if he chooses, for this does not amount to any type of restraint."[11]

         In contrast, in a second-tier encounter-even in the absence of probable cause-a police officer may "stop persons and detain them briefly, when the officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the persons are involved in criminal activity."[12] But importantly, in order to do so, the officer must "have more than a subjective, unparticularized suspicion or hunch."[13] Indeed, the officer's action must be "justified by specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion."[14] Furthermore, the officer must have "some basis from which the court can determine that the detention was neither arbitrary nor harassing."[15]

         Here, Miller contends that the evidence supporting his convictions was insufficient because the officers were not lawfully discharging their duties at the time of their confrontation. Specifically, he argues that when the officers encountered him at the abandoned home on Tara Road, they lacked any reasonable, articulable suspicion that he was involved in criminal activity. As a result, he concludes that this was a first-tier encounter from which he was free to leave, even run. Miller's argument is without merit.

         On the night in question, the officers had an arrest warrant for a person known by the nickname Bull and reliable information that this person was currently at the abandoned Tara Road home. When they arrived, in uniform and marked patrol vehicles, they saw Miller, who generally fit the description of the warrant's subject, and, therefore, they were authorized in their attempt to detain him pending his identification.[16] And while Miller argues that detaining him was unreasonable because he did not match the description in the warrant, the description in the warrant was based on the witnesses' accounts of the theft from the impound lot, as well as surveillance photos. Thus, to the extent there were any inconsistencies in those descriptions, it was up the jury to resolve them.[17] Accordingly, Miller's contention that the evidence was insufficient to conclude that the officers lawfully discharged their duties lacks merit. And having so found, we now direct our attention to an analysis of the evidence supporting the specific convictions being challenged by Miller.

         (a) Aggravated assault on a law-enforcement officer.

         Under OCGA § 16-5-21 (a) (2), a person commits the offense of aggravated assault when "he or she assaults . . . [w]ith a deadly weapon or with any object, device, or instrument which, when used offensively against a person, is likely to or actually does result in serious bodily injury[.]" And OCGA § 16-5-20 (a) (1-2) provides that "[a] person commits the offense of simple assault when he or she either . . . [a]ttempts to commit a violent injury to the person of another; or . . . [c]ommits an act which places another in reasonable apprehension of immediately receiving a violent injury."

         In this matter, Counts 8, 9, and 12 of the indictment charged Miller with aggravated assault by alleging that he made an assault upon Sergeant Arnzen and Deputies Montford and Hogan, respectively, "with a motor vehicle, an object which when used offensively against a person is likely to result in serious bodily injury, by trying to hit said peace officer with said motor vehicle, while said peace officer was engaged in the performance of his official duties[.]" Indeed, the evidence shows that Miller drove the stolen white van directly toward Deputies Montford and Hogan when they attempted to detain him, only missing them when they dove out of the way. The evidence also shows that after driving the van into the yard of a residence and being ordered to stop by Sergeant Arnzen, Miller verbally threatened to "hit" Arnzen and then attempted to reverse the direction of the van such that Arnzen believed that he intended to carry out his threat. Given these circumstances, the evidence was sufficient to support Miller's aggravated-assault convictions.[18]

         (b) Obstruction and fleeing.

         Under OCGA § 16-10-24 (a), "[e]xcept as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, a person who knowingly and willfully obstructs or hinders any law enforcement officer . . . in the lawful discharge of his or her official duties shall be guilty of a misdemeanor." Somewhat related, OCGA § 40-6-395 (a) provides:

It shall be unlawful for any driver of a vehicle willfully to fail or refuse to bring his or her vehicle to a stop or otherwise to flee or attempt to elude a pursuing police vehicle or police officer when given a visual or an audible signal to bring the vehicle to a stop. The signal given by the police officer may be by hand, voice, emergency light, or siren. The officer giving such signal shall be in uniform prominently displaying his or her badge of office, and his or her vehicle shall be appropriately marked showing it to be an official police vehicle.

         Here, in Counts 5 and 11, the State charged Miller with obstruction of a law-enforcement officer by alleging that he "did knowingly and willfully obstruct" Deputy Manning and Sergeant Arnzen, respectively, "a law enforcement officer . . . in the lawful discharge of his official duties by refusing to stop fleeing when given verbal commands to do so by said law enforcement officer." Additionally, in Count 10, the State charged Miller with fleeing by alleging that he

did willfully flee a pursuing police officer, after having been given a visual signal to bring his vehicle to a stop by [Sergeant] Arnzen, an officer who at the time of giving such signal was in a uniform prominently displaying the officer's badge of his office and the officer's vehicle was appropriately marked showing it to be an official police vehicle.

         At trial, the evidence showed that both Deputy Manning and Sergeant Arnzen were in uniform and driving marked patrol vehicles when they ordered Miller to stop and he ignored those commands. Nevertheless, Miller argues that there was insufficient evidence that the officers were lawfully discharging their duties by detaining him during a first-tier encounter. But as noted supra, the officers were justified in conducting, at the very least, a second-tier detention of Miller.[19] Consequently, Miller's ability "to withdraw from a consensual first tier ...

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