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State v. Benson

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eleventh District, Ashtabula

August 12, 2019

STATE OF OHIO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
LYNDEE A. BENSON, Defendant-Appellant.

          Criminal Appeal from the Ashtabula County Court of Common Pleas, Case No. 2018-CR-0094.

         Judgment: Reversed and remanded.

          Nicholas A. Iarocci, Ashtabula County Prosecutor, and Shelley M. Pratt, Assistant Prosecutor, Ashtabula County OH 44047 (For Plaintiff-Appellee).

          Marie Lane, Ashtabula County Public Defender, Inc., OH 44004 (For Defendant-Appellant).

          OPINION

          MARY JANE TRAPP, J.

         {¶1} Appellant, Lyndee A. Benson, appeals her conviction for aggravated possession of drugs following her no contest plea. Ms. Benson argues the Ashtabula County Court of Common Pleas erred in denying her motion to suppress. We reverse and remand, having determined from the totality of the circumstances that once Ms. Benson admitted to having drugs in her purse and was removed from the vehicle, she was, as any reasonable person would believe, in custody. Thus, her statements following her initial admission to the police should have been suppressed. The trial court made no factual findings as to the physical evidence from the search of Ms. Benson's purse that occurred at the same time she was removed from the vehicle. Thus, the trial court has failed to provide us with a sufficient basis upon which to determine whether its decision to not suppress the physical evidence was supported by competent, credible evidence. We remand on this limited basis for the trial court to make findings of fact and conclusions of law based on the evidence adduced at the suppression hearing as to whether the drugs seized were the result of an unlawful search.

         Substantive and Procedural History

         {¶2} Ms. Benson's conviction stems from a traffic stop of a targeted vehicle in which she was a passenger. Upon the officer's questioning, she admitted methamphetamine was in her purse. A search of her purse discovered the drugs.

         {¶3} Ms. Benson was indicted and charged with aggravated trafficking in drugs, a felony of the fourth degree, and aggravated possession of drugs, a felony of the fifth degree. She subsequently filed a motion to suppress, arguing her statements and the substances found were inadmissible because she was subjected to a custodial interrogation without any Miranda warnings.

         The Suppression Hearing

         {¶4} Ashtabula County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Daniels ("Officer Daniels") was the sole witness at the hearing. He testified that he was on a special assignment as a "chase car." This meant he was assigned to a targeted drug residence and instructed to follow any vehicle leaving the residence until the vehicle either committed a traffic violation or led to other investigative sources.

         {¶5} An individual Officer Daniels was familiar with, Ryan Dougherty, was driving the vehicle. Mr. Dougherty had been observed dropping off a female on West 38th Street and circling the block while the female went into a residence. Officer Daniels was instructed to follow the truck once the female returned to the vehicle.

         {¶6} Once the truck left the area with the female inside, Officer Daniels followed the vehicle for approximately one mile before observing Mr. Dougherty fail to signal while changing lanes. Officer Daniels initiated a traffic stop, and several other cruisers appeared on the scene, pulling up behind Mr. Dougherty's vehicle. These cruisers, at least one unmarked and two with K-9 officers, were involved in the chase car operation and on standby in the area. Two of these officers, Sergeant Trader, an interdiction drug officer with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, and Officer Hildebrand, an interdiction drug officer with the Ashtabula City Police, were the first to approach the vehicle. The K-9 officers, while available, were never deployed.

         {¶7} Officer Daniels then had a conversation with Ms. Benson, asking her "* * * where she was coming from. If she knew the driver. I asked her if there was anything illegal I should know about inside the vehicle or on her person." She responded that "There wasn't." He told her he had observed her moving around the vehicle before the stop and that it was at that point, Officer Daniels testified, she "started breathing hard" and became visibly nervous, failing to make eye contact.

         The Body Cam Video

         {¶8} The video from the body cam, worn by Officer Daniels and submitted into evidence, was played during the hearing. The video is 14 minutes and 34 seconds in length and begins without audio for approximately one minute. Ms. Benson is seen sitting in the front passenger seat. She gives her license to Officer Daniels. Only Officer Daniel's hands, which are holding her license, are visible. Ms. Benson's face is obscured by the officer until he reaches toward the body cam and turns on the audio, shifting his position.

         {¶9} After audio recording begins, Officer Daniels can be heard telling Ms. Benson, "I can already see how nervous you are getting. You got something on you." At that point, Ms. Benson states, "I do." The officers can be heard asking Ms. Benson "where's it at," and telling her to "tell the truth," and "be honest." It is not long before Ms. Benson admits to having something in her purse. She is told to step out of the vehicle and leave the purse on the seat.

         {¶10} At this point, Ms. Benson is standing outside the vehicle. Sergeant Trader opens the driver's side of the vehicle and retrieves her purse. The other two officers are surrounding Ms. Benson, and multiple police cruisers are behind the vehicle. She admits to having "speed" in her purse, no needles, and "nothing else." An officer asks her where she got it and then tells her, "this is where your honesty is really going to help me out."

         {¶11} Ms. Benson tells the officers she "got it from a friend to give to a friend" and was doing a favor for a "friend." The officers inquire as to her driver, Mr. Dougherty, who she disclaimed knowing, stating he was simply "a ride" and had "no idea what she was doing." The officers keep questioning who the friend was and how she knew where to go, urging her "to be honest," and stating, "this is the time to be honest, think about what we are asking you." Ms. Benson does not reply, appears visibly nervous and chokes back tears.

         {¶12} An officer then asks her how often she goes over "there" to do friends a "favor." Eventually, the officer's questioning elicits an admission that the drugs belonged to the daughter of Ms. Benson's aunt [Ms. Benson's cousin], who told her to drop the drugs off to an individual who would meet her in a nearby park. The unknown individual would approach her, and no money would be exchanged.

         {¶13} The officers interject statements with their questioning, such as: "you can tell us who it was from," "we won't go run and tell them, that's not what this is about," and "the best thing you can do is be honest, we already know a lot of what we are going to find." When asked about her personal drug use, she admits she smokes or did smoke marijuana.

         {¶14} Sargent Trader interrupts the questioning and again asks Ms. Benson how she knows Mr. Dougherty. She repeats that Mr. Dougherty is simply giving her a ride. Sergeant Trader informs Officer Daniels that one of them (Ms. Benson or Mr. Dougherty) is lying since their stories are not the same. He continues to ask her how she knows Mr. Dougherty and through which mutual acquaintances. Officer Daniels interjects with the name, "Donny," and the officers continue to interrogate her as to whether Mr. Dougherty is friends with Donny, and "Donny who."

         {¶15} Ms. Benson raises her hands to her face and says, "I can't even…I can't have both of you…." Officer Daniels says, "Okay, we will just let him talk to you," pointing to Sergeant Trader. After several more questions, Sergeant Trader walks away, saying within earshot of Ms. Benson, "does she want to go to jail?" Officer Daniels asks her again, "who did she get this methamphetamine from?"

         {¶16} After several more questions as to whom she was meeting, Officer Hildeband asks her if "she would be willing to go back there to buy more 'ice' for the police?" Ms. Benson replies this is her aunt's house, so she does not know. He then asks her how much methamphetamine was at the house. She says, she "doesn't know," and that "she [her aunt] had what was left and put it on a scale and handed it to her and said, "when I got kicked out of my ex's house, she let me stay in Ohio Village and she just said I owed her a favor." Officer Daniels then asks, "What do you guys want to do with her?"

         {¶17} The officers discuss taking her to the station and charging her with possession. They then again question Ms. Benson about whom she was meeting and where. Dispatch can be heard over the questioning, "For clarity, they came out of a different residence than our target residence, just so you guys know." Officer Daniels continues questioning her as to whom "she was meeting; what she was supposed to do, and how it was that guy even now knows who she was even meeting?" She describes what her aunt instructed her to do. Then an officer states, "And now you are getting charged with possession of drugs * * * and trafficking * * *."

         {¶18} As two of the officers walk away, one asks Ms. Benson if she "knows where her aunt is getting "it" [the drugs] from. The officer then shows the drugs to a woman in the front seat of one of the cruisers, telling her it was "meth, crystal, it comes out of Mexico." The video ends with Ms. Benson with her head in her hands and the officers standing around the scene discussing what they should do next.

         {¶19} Ms. Benson was never placed under arrest, was never handcuffed, and was never given Miranda warnings.

         {¶20} The trial court denied Ms. Benson's motion to suppress all evidence finding that on review of the testimony and evidence presented, "it does not appear that this was a custodial interrogation necessitating Miranda warnings."

         {¶21} Ms. Benson entered a written plea of no contest to aggravated possession of drugs, in violation of R.C. 2925.11(A)(C)(1)(a), a felony of the fifth degree. The aggravated trafficking in drugs count was dismissed. The court sentenced Ms. Benson to two years of community control, with conditions.

         {¶22} Ms. Benson now timely appeals, raising the following assignment of error:

         {¶23} "The trial court erred when overruling Appellant's motion to suppress."

         Motion to Suppress Standard of Review

         {¶24} We give due deference to the trial court's assignment of weight and inferences drawn from the evidence when ruling on a motion to suppress on appeal. (Citations omitted.) State v. Starcovic, 11th Dist. Portage No. 2007-P-0081, 2008-Ohio-2758, ¶10, citing State v. Wilson, 11th Dist. Ashtabula No. 2007-A-0044, 2007-Ohio-6557, ¶11.

         {¶25} Thus, appellate review of a motion to suppress presents a mixed question of law and fact. (Citations omitted.) Id. at ¶11, citing Wilson at ¶12. "The appellate court must accept the trial court's factual findings, provided they are supported by competent, credible evidence. * * * Thereafter, the appellate court must independently determine whether those factual findings meet the requisite legal standard. Id., citing Wilson at ¶12, citing State v. Burnside, 100 Ohio St.3d 152, 2003-Ohio-5372, ¶8. We review the trial court's application of the law de novo. Id., citing State v. Zaken, 11th Dist. Ashtabula No. 2006-A-0036, 2007-Ohio-2306, ¶14.

         Custodial Interrogations

         {¶26} Ms. Benson raises a single issue in her assignment of error, contending that the trial court erred in ruling she was not subjected to a custodial interrogation that required Miranda warnings.

         {¶27} "In Miranda [v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436], at 444, * * * the United States Supreme Court established procedural safeguards for securing the privilege against self-incrimination guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution makes the privilege against self-incrimination applicable to a witness in a state proceeding." Cleveland v. Oles, 152 Ohio St.3d 1, 2017-Ohio-5834, ¶8, citing Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 3 (1964). "A similar privilege is recognized in Article I, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution." Id

         {¶28} "What are now commonly known as Miranda warnings are intended to protect a suspect from the coercive pressure present during a custodial interrogation." Id. at ¶9, citing Miranda at 469. "A custodial interrogation is 'questioning initiated by law enforcement officers after a person has been taken into custody or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way.'" Id., quoting Miranda at 444. "If a suspect provides responses while in custody without having first been informed of his or her Miranda rights, the responses may not be admitted at trial as evidence of guilt." Id., quoting Miranda at 479.

         {¶29} "Any statement, question or remark which is 'reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response' is an interrogation." State v. Knuckles, 65 Ohio St.3d 494, 495 (1992), citing Rhode Island v. Innis, 446 U.S. 291, 301 (1980). The questions asked of Ms. Benson were designed to elicit inculpatory responses.

         {¶30} Ms. Benson was a suspect from the outset. Officer Daniels was instructed to follow Mr. Dougherty's truck once the female he dropped off at a target drug house returned to the vehicle. Officer Daniels had suspicions based on facts and circumstances that occurred prior to the stop and which laid a legitimate foundation for the initial, basic questions posed to Ms. Benson while she was in the passenger seat of the vehicle. The same cannot be said of the questions posed after she was removed from the vehicle.

         {¶31} While "[p]olice officers are not responsible for unforeseeable incriminating responses," the initial questions were designed and reasonably likely to elicit incriminating statements. Ms. Benson was a target since she was seen in the vicinity of a known drug house and was followed by the officers until they had probable cause to stop the vehicle for a traffic law violation. State v. Strozier, 172 Ohio App.3d 780, 2007-Ohio-4575, ¶20 (2d Dist).

         {¶32} After Ms. Benson made her initial incriminating statements, she was removed from the vehicle and her pursed immediately searched. At this point from the video, it appears the only legitimate basis for this search was incident to arrest. And it is at this point we determine the interrogation became a custodial interrogation.

         When does questioning after a traffic stop become a ...


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