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State v. White

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Second District

July 12, 2013

STATE OF OHIO, Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
MEAGAN WHITE, Defendant-Appellee

(Criminal Appeal from (Common Pleas Court) Trial Court Case No. 2012-CR-866.

MATHIAS H. HECK, JR., by R. LYNN NOTHSTINE, Atty. Reg. #0061560, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, Montgomery County Prosecutor's Office, Appellate Division, Montgomery County Courts Building, Attorney for Plaintiff-Appellant.

VICTOR A. HODGE, Atty. Reg. No. 0007298, Assistant Public Defender, Law Office of the Public Defender, Attorney for Defendant-Appellee.

OPINION

DONOVAN, J.

{¶ 1} The State of Ohio appeals from the trial court's decision sustaining a motion to suppress evidence of heroin that was found in Appellee Meagan White's vehicle after a traffic stop. The trial court found that the detaining officer did not articulate sufficient, reasonable facts objectively suggesting that criminal activity was afoot. As a result, it concluded that the officer had no legal basis to prolong White's detention beyond the traffic stop. The trial court also found that White did not give valid consent for the officer to search her vehicle.

{¶ 2} In support of its appeal, the State contends that, based on the totality of the circumstances, White gave valid consent to the officer to conduct a search of her vehicle, because a reasonable person in White's position would have believed she was free to leave and free to refuse to answer further questions. The State argues that White's consent was a knowing and voluntary act of her own free will, and that the evidence obtained from the search of her vehicle should not have been suppressed. We conclude that the trial court did not err in suppressing the heroin found in White's vehicle. The officer's continued detention of White was unlawful, and White's consent was not freely and voluntarily given.

{¶ 3} At the suppression hearing, Officer Lukas Hammermeister, a ranger with Five Rivers MetroParks, testified that on March 16, 2012, he was patrolling Wegerzyn Garden MetroPark in a marked cruiser, at approximately 4:45 p.m., when he observed Meagan White sitting in her parked car in a rear parking lot away from other vehicles and park buildings. As he drove by White's vehicle, Hammermeister observed White hunched over the center console of her vehicle. White sat up, and upon seeing the officer, she blurted a common epithet. Hammermeister believed White had a panicked look on her face. White thereafter got out of her vehicle and walked into the adjacent woods. Hammermeister, who has been a park ranger for ten years, stated that he has seen similar behavior in the park several times, and that he made arrests based on such behavior. He did not identify the nature of such arrests, however. Hammermeister believed that White's actions were somehow suspicious.

{¶ 4} After observing White's behavior, Hammermeister parked behind a building and continued to watch White's vehicle. A few moments later, he observed White return to her vehicle from the woods and drive away. The officer followed White's vehicle, and when she stopped at a stop sign, he noticed that she had a broken tail light. Hammermeister then activated his cruiser's overhead lights and initiated a traffic stop. Initially he did not activate his siren. Hammermeister approached White's vehicle and immediately notified her that he had pulled her over due to a broken tail light. He asked for White's license and registration and confirmed that her information was valid and that she had no warrants. He noticed that White was nervous during the traffic stop, her voice was trembling and her hands were shaking. Hammermeister had called for back up prior to the stop and a second officer, Benjamin Supinger, arrived.

{¶ 5} Hammermeister gave White a verbal warning for the tail light violation and told her that she was free to leave. However, he immediately asked her "if it was okay [for him] to ask her a question before [he] got out of there." White answered, "Yes, you can ask me a question." Hammermeister then briefly recounted his observations of her behavior when he drove by her in the park, and he asked if she had anything illegal inside her car. White stated, "Not to my knowledge." Hammermeister then asked for permission to search her vehicle, and White verbally agreed. Hammermeister did not inform White that she could deny consent to search her vehicle and need not answer any questions.

{¶ 6} White stepped out of her vehicle, and Hammermeister began his search around the center console area. He found several sandy brown chunks which he suspected were heroin. Hammermeister had made prior arrests for heroin, thus he was familiar with its appearance. The search also yielded a marijuana pipe. After locating the contraband, Hammermeister read White her Miranda rights, which she indicated she understood. He then asked her if what he had found was heroin, and she said yes.

{¶ 7} White was indicted on April 25, 2012, for possession of heroin, in an amount less than one gram, in violation of R.C. 2925.11(A). White moved to suppress the heroin as evidence against her on the grounds that Hammermeister had engaged in an unlawful search and seizure. On September 27, 2012, the trial court sustained the motion to suppress. The State now appeals the trial court's ruling.

{¶ 8} The State's sole assignment of error is as follows:

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED BY SUPPRESSING THE HEROIN FOUND IN MEAGAN WHITE'S VEHICLE BY HAMMERMEISTER AFTER THE PURPOSE OF THE TRAFFIC STOP HE HAD INITIATED WAS OVER WHERE THE OFFICER TOLD WHITE SHE WAS FREE TO LEAVE AND ALSO REQUESTED HER PERMISSION TO EVEN ASK HER A QUESTION PRIOR TO OBTAINING HER VOLUNTARY CONSENT TO THE SEARCH OF HER VEHICLE.

{¶ 9} The State argues that White gave valid consent for the officer to search her vehicle, and that under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in White's position would have believed she was free to leave. This assertion is based on the fact that Hammermeister advised White that she was free to leave after the traffic stop ended, and that White subsequently consented to the officer's request to search her vehicle. Therefore, the State claims that the heroin found in White's vehicle was the product of a lawful, consensual search, and that it should not have been suppressed by the trial court.

{¶ 10} White argues that the totality of the circumstances did not establish reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity to justify detaining her beyond the scope of the concluded traffic stop. Therefore, White claims her prolonged detention was unlawful, and the unlawful detention invalidates her consent.

{¶ 11} "In ruling on a motion to suppress, the trial court 'assumes the role of the trier of fact, and, as such, is in the best position to resolve questions of fact and evaluate the credibility of the witnesses.' " State v. Prater, 2d Dist. Montgomery No. 24936, 2012-Ohio-5105, ¶ 7, quoting State v. Retherford, 93 Ohio App.3d 586, 592, 639 N.E.2d 498 (2d Dist.1994). "As a result, when we review suppression decisions, 'we are bound to accept the trial court's findings of fact if they are supported by competent, credible evidence. Accepting those facts as true, we must independently determine as a matter of law, without deference to the trial court's conclusion, whether they meet the applicable legal standard.' " Id.

{¶ 12} In sustaining White's motion to suppress, the trial court found the following relevant facts:

On March 16, 2012, Officer Hammermeister observed a female[1] sitting in her parked car in the rear of the Wegerzyn Garden MetroPark parking lot. As he drove past her car, Officer Hammermeister saw Defendant hunched over her center console, sit up and, upon seeing the Officer, blurt a common epithet. Officer Hammermeister believed Defendant appeared panicked. He then watched her exit her car and walk into the adjacent woods. Officer Hammermeister stated that this activity, somehow[2], was "suspicious" and "consistent with drug activity." Moments later he observed Defendant return to her car and drive off.
Officer Hammermeister followed Defendant's car as it left the park and noticed that only one tail light was working - which he knew was a traffic violation. He initiated a traffic stop.
Following the stop, Officer Hammermeister immediately informed Defendant that he had stopped her for the traffic violation and requested her license and registration. Officer Hammermeister testified that Defendant was nervous - her voice was trembling and her hands shaking. After running Defendant's information through LEADS and confirming Defendant had a valid license with no wants or warrants, Officer Hammermeister gave Defendant a verbal warning and told her she was free to leave. In short, the reason for the traffic stop was over.
But then, Officer Hammermeister immediately asked: "Can I ask you a question before I get out of here?" When Defendant said "yes", Officer Hammermeister recounted his observations from the park, told Defendant he thought it odd she was nervous during a minor traffic stop and asked her permission to search the car - to which search Defendant agreed. Officer Hammermeister never informed Defendant she could deny consent to search and the State elicited no facts supporting a conclusion ...

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