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State v. Dotson

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Seventh District, Mahoning

June 22, 2018

STATE OF OHIO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
BRYAN M. DOTSON, Defendant-Appellant.

          Criminal Appeal from the Court of Common Pleas of Mahoning County, Ohio Case No. 15 CR 613.

          Atty. Richard Ferrara, for Defendant-Appellant and,

          Atty. Paul Gains, Mahoning County Prosecutor and Atty. Ralph M. Rivera, Office Mahoning County Prosecutor, 21 W. Boardman Street, 6th Floor, Youngstown, Ohio 44503, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          BEFORE: Gene Donofrio, Cheryl L. Waite, Carol Ann Robb, Judges.

          OPINION AND JUDGMENT ENTRY

          Donofrio, J.

         {¶1} Defendant-appellant, Bryan Dotson, appeals from a Mahoning County Common Pleas Court judgment convicting him of receiving stolen property in the form of a vehicle and tampering with vehicle identifying numbers, following a jury trial.

         {¶2} On May 22, 2014, Ohio State Highway Patrol Trooper Erik Golias initiated a traffic stop of appellant on State Route 46 in Mahoning County, Ohio. Trooper Golias initiated the traffic stop due to appellant's truck not displaying a front-end license plate. Appellant was operating a Dodge Ram pickup truck.

         {¶3} Upon approaching appellant's vehicle, Trooper Golias noticed that the truck's steering column had been "peeled," meaning that the plastic around the ignition had been pulled away from the steering column to access the ignition mechanisms. He was then under the suspicion that the truck appellant was operating may have been stolen or tampered with. Upon noticing the peeled steering column, he removed appellant from the truck, conducted a consensual pat-down, and placed appellant in his police cruiser. Trooper Golias then attempted to identify the public vehicle identification number (VIN), which is located on the dashboard, but was unable to do so because there was black spray paint on the windshield which covered the VIN. Trooper Golias also discovered a secondary VIN on the truck inside the door frame that was also covered with black spray paint. Eventually, Trooper Golias was able to scrape away enough of the spray paint on the windshield to ascertain the public VIN. The public VIN indicated that the truck belonged to appellant.

         {¶4} There were several other factors that lead to Trooper Golias' suspicion that the truck appellant was operating was stolen, which lead to a continued search. These factors included: a cracked dashboard, missing screws from the dashboard, appellant's apparent level of nervousness, appellant's overtalkative nature, and appellant's explanation that he changed out the dashboard but the newly installed dashboard was damaged. Appellant attempted to explain that he purchased the truck inexpensively and had replaced many components including the interior and the windshield. Trooper Golias contacted Trooper Skaggs, who was a specialist in stolen vehicles, to assist with the investigation.

         {¶5} Upon Trooper Skaggs' arrival at the scene, he began to investigate the truck. First, he noted that an anonymous tip was reported stating that there was a Dodge Ram pickup truck matching the description of the truck appellant was operating that was possibly a retagged vehicle. Trooper Skaggs also noted that: the door markings identified the truck as a Dodge 1500 series but the chassis was a Dodge 2500 series; the dashboard itself was a different color than the rest of the interior of the truck; and the truck's engine was missing its body tag. Furthermore, Trooper Skaggs noticed that the truck's VIN indicated that the truck contained a 5.9 liter gas engine but the truck had a 5.9 liter turbo Cummins intercooled diesel engine.

         {¶6} At the conclusion of Trooper Skaggs' inspection, Troopers Golias and Skaggs impounded appellant's truck in order to perform a more thorough investigation. But they decided not to arrest appellant at that time. They gave appellant the option of transporting the truck to the highway patrol post himself or having the troopers call for a tow truck. Appellant opted to drive the truck to the highway patrol post himself. Appellant was then free to leave after he left the truck in the troopers' possession.

         {¶7} The next day, Trooper Skaggs continued his investigation of the vehicle. He located the secondary concealed VIN on the truck. The secondary VIN did not match the public VIN located on the dashboard. When he ran the secondary VIN through the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) databases, he discovered that the secondary VIN was for a Dodge 2500 series truck reported as stolen from Cornerstone Motors (Cornerstone) in Columbiana, Ohio. Trooper Skaggs also followed up with the public VIN on the dashboard and discovered the original owner, Amanda Varney. Varney told him that she had sold appellant a maroon Dodge Ram 1500.

         {¶8} Trooper Skaggs also noted that the truck registered as stolen indicated it had approximately 141, 000 miles on it. Appellant's odometer at the time he was stopped by Trooper Golias read 145, 213 miles. But the title of the vehicle when Varney sold the truck to appellant indicated that the truck she sold had almost 250, 000 miles on it. Trooper Skaggs then concluded that the VIN of the vehicle appellant purchased from Varney was placed on the stolen vehicle from Cornerstone in order to conceal the fact that it was stolen.

          {¶9} Appellant was then charged and indicted with one count of receiving stolen property in the form of a vehicle, a fourth-degree felony in violation of R.C. 2913.51(A), and one count of tampering with vehicle identifying numbers, a fifth-degree felony in violation of R.C. 4549.62(A).

         {¶10} Appellant filed a motion to suppress seeking to exclude virtually all evidence police obtained in this case. In his supporting memorandum, appellant argued that all evidence should be suppressed due to: a lack of reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop, a lack of reasonable suspicion to continue appellant's detention and the investigation of the truck, and any and all statements made by appellant were obtained prior to appellant being read his Miranda rights. At the suppression hearing, Trooper Golias testified that a video tape of appellant's stop and detention existed. But the video had not been produced because it was erased by the Ohio State Highway Patrol.

         {¶11} After the suppression hearing, the trial court gave appellant leave to file a motion addressing the missing tape. Appellant filed a motion to dismiss on the basis that the erased video tape contained potentially exculpatory evidence and should have been preserved and disclosed by the prosecution. Appellant requested a hearing with the trial court on his motion to dismiss. The trial court overruled both appellant's motion to suppress and motion to dismiss without further hearing.

         {¶12} The matter proceeded to a jury trial. Troopers Golias and Skaggs were the only witnesses. The jury returned guilty verdicts on both counts. The trial court subsequently sentenced appellant to five years of community control, which included six months of incarceration on each count to be served consecutively for a total jail sentence of one year. The court also ordered appellant to pay restitution of $1, 000 to Cornerstone and $10, 713.38 to Auto Owner's Insurance, Cornerstone's insurance company.

         {¶13} Appellant timely filed this appeal on July 15, 2016. He now raises ten assignments of error.

         {¶14} Appellant's first assignment of error states:

THE TRIAL COURT ERRED IN FAILING TO SUPPRESS ALL EVIDENCE, INCLUDING OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS, FROM THE UNCONSTITUTIONAL STOP, SEIZURE, AND SEARCH OF APPELLANT AND HIS VEHICLE.

         {¶15} Appellant makes several arguments concerning this assignment of error. First, appellant argues that he was arrested as a result of his original traffic stop and such arrest and subsequent search of the truck was not supported by probable cause. Next, appellant argues that he was unconstitutionally seized when Troopers Golias and Skaggs prolonged his traffic stop. Finally, appellant argues that the seizure of the truck was unconstitutional because it was done so without a warrant or an exception to the warrant requirement.

         {¶16} A motion to suppress presents a mixed question of law and fact. When considering a motion to suppress, the trial court assumes the role of trier of fact and is therefore in the best position to resolve factual questions and evaluate witness credibility. State v. Burnside, 100 Ohio St.3d 152, 2003-Ohio-5372, 797 N.E.2d 71, ¶ 8. The appellate court must accept the trial court's findings of fact if they are supported by competent and credible evidence. Id. Accepting these facts as true, the appellate court must then independently determine, without deference to the conclusion of the trial court, whether the facts satisfy the applicable legal standard. Id.

         {¶17} The only witness who testified at the suppression hearing was Trooper Golias. He testified that he initiated the traffic stop for failure to display a front license plate on an Ohio-registered motor vehicle. (Supp. Tr. 14-15, 33, Exhibit 1). This testimony was not contradicted throughout the suppression hearing. As operating a motor vehicle without a front license plate is a violation of R.C. 4503.21, sufficient reasonable suspicion existed for Trooper Golias to stop appellant.

         {¶18} Next, appellant argues that he was arrested without probable cause when Trooper Golias immediately removed him from the truck and placed him in the police cruiser. An arrest involves four elements: (1) an intent to arrest; (2) under a real or pretended authority; (3) an actual or constructive seizure or detention of a person; and (4) the intent is understood by the person arrested. State v. Darrah, 64 Ohio St.2d 22, 412 N.E.2d 1328 (1980).

         {¶19} Appellant points out the following portion of the suppression hearing transcript during Trooper Golias' cross examination:

Q I understand that. I understand that. But that's what was told to you. And at this time, there was a key in the ignition; correct?
A I don't recall, but I believe so.
* * *
Q Okay. Okay. And I notice that the - - so then you opened the door, and you look in the side to see if you see a VIN number; is that what you said?
A No. I said Federal Identification.
Q Federal Identification number. Okay. Now, up to this point you still haven't asked him his name, have you?
A No, I have not.
Q You haven't asked him for any identification, proof of insurance, registration; correct?
A No. Right now I'm worried about a felony of a stolen vehicle.
* * *
Q So just by looking at - - so you don't ask him name, anything about him until later on, nine minutes later by your notes; right?
A I believe that's when I asked him, after I had the scene secured.
Q Okay. And as far as you ordered him out of the car; right?
A Correct.
Q Okay. And where was he placed at that time?
A He was taken to the front of my patrol car.
Q Okay. And he was put in your patrol car?
A Yes, he was.
Q He wasn't free to leave at that time; correct?
A No, he was not.

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