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White v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

January 13, 2020



         Dakota Lamar White appeals his convictions for malice murder and other crimes, stemming from the death of Samuel Poss.[1] A juvenile at the time of his crimes, White alleges errors both in the admission of his confession and in the trial court's decision to sentence him to life without parole. We conclude that White has not shown that the trial court committed any reversible error under existing precedent with respect to either decision, and we affirm.

         The trial evidence in the light most favorable to the verdicts is as follows. On October 16, 2016, Christian Poss called police to report that his 18-year-old son Samuel was missing. Three days later, after receiving reports pointing to White as a suspect, and without first obtaining an arrest warrant, police arrested White in the doorway of his home. After 17-year-old White arrived at the police station, he waived his Miranda rights and submitted to an interview. During the interview, White confessed that he and Brandon Warren had killed Samuel. White then led detectives to Samuel's body.

         In his confession, played for the jury at trial, White said that he and Warren had entered into a suicide pact. White reported that he and Warren wanted to know what it was like to kill someone else before they killed themselves. White proposed that they kill his friend Samuel, because he would be an "easy" victim. In the early morning hours of October 15, 2016, White asked Samuel to come to White's house to help with a computer problem. Samuel agreed, and White and Warren picked up Samuel in White's car and drove to White's Houston County home. Before Samuel could exit the car in White's driveway, White strangled Samuel, and Warren stabbed him. White and Warren left Samuel's body in a creek bed and disposed of other incriminating evidence.

         A jury found White guilty of malice murder and the other offenses with which he was charged. After a two-day sentencing hearing, the trial court sentenced White to life without parole on the murder count, plus 10 years' imprisonment each for concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence. This appeal followed.

         1. Although White does not challenge the sufficiency of the evidence, we have independently reviewed the record and conclude that the evidence presented at trial was legally sufficient to authorize a rational trier of fact to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of the crimes of which he was convicted. See Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 319 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979).

         2. White argues that his statements to law enforcement should have been suppressed because he was illegally arrested without a warrant and interrogated immediately thereafter.[2] We disagree.

         In reviewing a ruling on a motion to suppress, we review the trial court's factual findings for clear error and its legal conclusions de novo. See Vansant v. State, 264 Ga. 319, 320 (1) (443 S.E.2d 474) (1994). In addition, in reviewing such a ruling,

an appellate court must construe the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to the trial court's factual findings and judgment. An appellate court also generally must limit its consideration of the disputed facts to those expressly found by the trial court.

Caffee v. State, 303 Ga. 557, 557 (814 S.E.2d 386) (2018) (citations and punctuation omitted).

         Here, the trial court made oral findings[3] that, before arresting White, law enforcement had been told by White's grandfather that White had behaved oddly after the murder by leaving the windows of his car down. The trial court also found that another one of White's family members had relayed information that White had admitted to his mother that he and someone named Brandon had killed Samuel by stabbing and strangling him. Based on these findings, the trial court concluded that the officers had probable cause to arrest White. The trial court also found the arrest was "appropriate" notwithstanding the absence of a warrant, because law enforcement had reason to believe that White was suicidal, and because the officers later obtained an arrest warrant. The trial court added that any violation of White's rights was "minimal" given that an arresting officer's forearm merely crossed the threshold of the residence's door before White came out of the house. The trial court thereby rejected White's motion to suppress his statements on the grounds that they were the fruit of an illegal arrest.

         White argues that his statements should have been suppressed because he was interrogated shortly after an illegal warrantless arrest.[4] The Fourth Amendment generally prohibits police from making a warrantless and nonconsensual entry into a suspect's home in order to make a routine felony arrest. See Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 576 (100 S.Ct. 1371, 63 L.Ed.2d 639) (1980). We have doubts whether the arrest here satisfied the Fourth Amendment. But even if it did not, the trial court properly refused to suppress White's statements.

         White cites United States Supreme Court decisions in which the Court held that the defendants' statements, elicited following illegal arrests, should have been suppressed. See Taylor v. Alabama, 457 U.S. 687 (102 S.Ct. 2664, 73 L.Ed.2d 314) (1982); Dunaway v. New York, 442 U.S. 200 (99 S.Ct. 2248, 60 L.Ed.2d 824) (1979); Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (95 S.Ct. 2254, 45 L.Ed.2d 416) (1975). But the Supreme Court has distinguished those cases as involving arrests made without probable cause, making clear that "where the police have probable cause to arrest a suspect, the exclusionary rule does not bar the State's use of a statement made by the defendant outside of his home, even though the statement is taken after an arrest made in the home in violation of Payton." New York v. Harris, 495 U.S. 14, 18-21 (110 S.Ct. 1640, 109 L.Ed.2d 13) (1990); see also Almodovar v. State, 289 Ga. 494, 497 (3) (713 S.E.2d 373) (2011); Stinski v. State, 281 Ga. 783, 785 (2) (b) (642 S.E.2d 1) (2007). Here, White does not meaningfully challenge the trial court's conclusion that officers had probable cause to arrest him when they did, focusing instead on their failure to obtain a warrant. Indeed, given the trial court's factual findings about the information that White's family members provided to law enforcement, which are supported by the record, we conclude that the trial court did not err in reaching that conclusion. See Stinski, 281 Ga. at 785 (2) (c) (probable cause to arrest defendant where officers had been informed by other residents of home where defendant was living that he had admitted killing the victims); see also Williams v. State, 298 Ga. 538, 541 (4) (783 S.E.2d 594) (2016) (probable cause to arrest may be established by hearsay evidence). And White raises no argument that he was interrogated inside of his residence. He therefore has shown no error in the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress his statements.

         3. White claims that the trial court committed several reversible errors in its decision to sentence him to life without the possibility of parole. White has not shown that existing precedent offers any basis to vacate his ...

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