Friday, March 30, 2007

State v. Mason (Ct of Special Appeals)

Filed March 27, 2007. Opinion by Judge Charles E. Moylan, Jr. (retired, specially assigned).

On appeal from the trial court's grant of the motion of the defendant ("Mason") to suppress the physical evidence of possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute, the Court AFFIRMED the decision below.

This case arose from a narcotics investigation that resorted to a Whren -style traffic stop ruse to detain the suspect until drug-sniffing dogs could be brought to the scene of the traffic stop, and "alert" to the drugs later found in the vehicle. At trial, the judge granted Mason's motion to suppress the drugs on the basis of an unreasonable detention, which Mason had estimated at 25 minutes, and the State at 10 minutes. The State appealed the decision.

Preliminarily, the Court noted that, under Section 12-302(c) in the Code, the trial court ruling would become final, unless the matter were appealed and the appeals court rendered a decision within 120 days, though commenting that this limitation would be moot unless the appellate decision were to overturn the decision below.

The Court also noted that neither the traffic stop, nor the right to search the vehicle after the drug dog "alerted" to the presence of drugs were at issue, nor relevant to the questions presented. Rather, the sole issue was to assess whether the period between the initial stop and the K-9 alert was an unreasonable detention under the Fourth Amendment. Since the State had appealed the adverse ruling below, Mason's version of the length, 25 minutes, must be presumed.

The Court then turned to the reasonableness of that length of detention, rejecting the mere length of time as the critical factor in favor of the totality of the circumstances, a factual determination. Since the decision of the trial judge, as the trier of fact, is to be overturned only if clearly erroneous, the Court had little trouble, after reviewing the testimony below and the leading cases on the subject, in finding sufficient evidence to support the ruling below, noting that had the ruling gone the other way, there was also ample evidence to support that ruling as well, had it been made below by the trier of fact.

The Court also rejected the State's alternative Fourth Amendment theory, an effort to "unpoison the fruit of the poisonous tree" by advancing an alternative basis for the stop and the detention, namely, an anonymous phone call that had alerted the police that Mason would be transporting drugs in the van later subjected to the Whren stop. While expressing considerable regret that the State had not chosen to do so, the Court found that the State had not preserved the issue, since at no point below did the State advance that rationale as a justification for the stop and detention. This was in contrast to the situation in the Court of Appeals' recent Cox decision, where the issue had been advanced below.

The opinion is available in PDF format.

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