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State v. Riffle

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, Cuyahoga

August 15, 2019

STATE OF OHIO, Plaintiff-Appellee,
JOSEPH RIFFLE, Defendant-Appellant.

          Criminal Appeal from the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Case No. CR-17-618102-A


          Michael C. O'Malley, Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney, and Callista A. Plemel and Eben McNair, Assistant Prosecuting Attorneys, for appellee.

          Jay F. Crook, Attorney at Law, L.L.C., and Jay F. Crook, for appellant.



         {¶ 1} Defendant-appellant Joseph Riffle ("Riffle") appeals from a jury trial where Riffle was found guilty of one count of cultivation of marijuana with a firearm specification, one count of drug possession with a firearm specification, and forfeiture specifications requiring the forfeiture of five firearms. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         I. Statement of the Facts

         {¶ 2} On June 6, 2017, the Cleveland Police received an anonymous Cuyahoga County Crime Stoppers email identifying Riffle's home address, 12901 Erwin Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio, and stating marijuana plants were growing in the backyard. Detective Pitts, Sergeant Dunst, and Detective Follmer went to McGowan Avenue, one street south of Erwin Avenue, to establish surveillance. Detective Pitts and Sergeant Dunst walked up the driveway of the house behind Riffle's and from the neighbor's backyard looked over a wooden fence. Detective Pitts described the fence as four to six feet tall. The evidence shows the officers did not use a ladder but looked over the fence and observed marijuana plants. Detective Pitts also smelled the distinct odor of growing marijuana plants. The officers informed Detective Follmer of their observations.

         {¶3} The officers continued surveillance efforts while Detective Follmer returned to the First District to draft a search warrant and supporting affidavit and obtain the necessary signature. Upon executing the search warrant that same day, the officers first encountered Riffle exiting his home from the back doorway. Riffle was instructed that the officers had a search warrant for the house. Riffle denied having anything on his body, including drugs. Riffle was handcuffed and told he was under arrest for violating state law by cultivating marijuana in his backyard. Bodycam footage from the arrest shows an officer asked, "What's in the house" and Riffle responded "marijuana." The footage shows Riffle was under arrest, but his wife had not provided entry through the front door or put the dogs in a secure area away from the police. Riffle and an officer discussed Mrs. Riffle's confusion and fear of the officer's presence and Riffle then stated, "There's weed downstairs." This comment was not in response to a question from an officer. An officer escorted Riffle into the living room and asked for his identification. Riffle's identification was in the garage. Since the garage was being inspected, Riffle was told to "wait a second" before he obtained his identification. No questions were posed to Riffle. Riffle then commented, "Yeah, go right ahead. There's nothing bad. There's nothing whatever. I got; I got my two guns are here. One downstairs in my band room. One is in my bedroom and there's nothing. I got no weapons on me." The bodycam footage shows Riffle was subsequently asked whether there was any money in the house. Riffle responded "no" and provided an itemization of the guns in the home. It is not clear whether Riffle was asked to identify all the guns. Riffle also stated the marijuana "is mine." The officers ultimately found four plants growing in the backyard as well as lighting, grow pots, marijuana, and numerous firearms inside the house.

         {¶4} Riffle was arrested and charged with three counts: cultivation of marijuana with a one-year firearm specification; drug trafficking with a one-year firearm specification and forfeiture specifications related to multiple weapons; and drug possession with a one-year firearm specification and forfeiture specifications related to multiple weapons. Riffle pled not guilty on July 14, 2017. A suppression hearing was held on January 2, 2018. Riffle attempted to exclude the introduction of any evidence obtained through the search warrant. The motion to suppress was denied on January 10, 2018. The case proceeded to a jury trial on April 30, 2018. The jury found Riffle guilty on all counts except drug trafficking, and Riffle was sentenced to a total prison term of one year, nine months. Riffle filed this timely appeal on June 21, 2018, and presents the following assignments of error:

First Assignment of Error: Appellant was prejudiced by ineffective counsel in that trial counsel failed to fail [sic] a motion to suppress regarding evidence obtained from the custodial interrogation of Mr. Riffle.
Second Assignment of Error: The trial court committed reversible error in failing to find that the statements by the officers contained in the Affidavit offered to procure the warrant, when the statements containing material omissions of fact and material statements of factual impossibility, were sufficient to create probable cause to allow for the issuance of a warrant to search Mr. Riffle's premises.
Third Assignment of Error: Mr. Riffle was prejudiced by the ineffective assistance of trial counsel in that Trial Counsel failed to raise the issue of a Brady violation for a failure of the State of Ohio to ever provide a copy of the email containing the "tip" from the confidential informant accusing Mr. Riffle of criminal activity.
Fourth Assignment of Error: Appellant's trial counsel was ineffective in failing to file a motion in limine with regards to the introduction of seven (7) firearms into evidence and the trial court committed clear error in allowing the presentation and introduction of the seven (7) rifles as evidence into trial when it is established before the hearing that operability has not been established.
Fifth Assignment of Error: The numerous errors and ineffective acts throughout the trial process, while providing grounds for reversal of Mr. Riffle's conviction by themselves, also provide grounds for reversal as their cumulative nature resulted in a deprivation of Mr. Riffle's due process right to a fair trial.

         II. Law and Analysis

         A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         {¶ 5} Since Riffle argues ineffective assistance of counsel in his first and third assignments of error, these arguments will be addressed collectively. Riffle's ineffective assistance of counsel argument regarding a motion in limine is discussed below under Section B, Firearms Evidence Admissibility.

         {¶ 6} The Ohio Supreme Court has repeated the well-established standard for reviewing claims of ineffective assistance of counsel: "[r]eversal of convictions for ineffective assistance of counsel requires that the defendant show, first, that counsel's performance was deficient and, second, that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense so as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial." State v. Linder, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 106600, 20 ...

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