Commonwealth v. McLaurin

Decision Date05 February 2020
Docket NumberJ-S07029-19,No. 804 MDA 2018,804 MDA 2018
CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania


Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence Entered May 2, 2018

In the Court of Common Pleas of Lycoming County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-41-CR-0000650-2016



Dominic Jarrell McLaurin appeals from his judgment of sentence, imposed on May 2, 2018, following a jury trial resulting in convictions for possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and criminal use of a communications facility.1 McLaurin challenges the denial of his motion to suppress evidence and the admission of evidence regarding a prior statement. We affirm.

We derive the following statement of facts and procedural history from the trial court's opinions. See Tr. Ct. Suppression Op., 4/11/17; Tr. Ct. Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) Op., 9/24/18. On January 6, 2016, Troopers Tyson Havensand Edward Dammer of the Pennsylvania State Police were on patrol in Williamsport, Pennsylvania when they encountered McLaurin in a black Chevy Impala sedan in the parking lot of a Nittany Minute Mart. McLaurin, along with another man, were rummaging around in the vehicle with all of the doors open. The troopers, surmising that McLaurin and the other individual were looking for drugs, pulled into a parking spot parallel to the Chevy Impala, but several spots away. When Trooper Havens approached the vehicle, McLaurin was in the driver's seat and the other individual was already inside the convenience store. Trooper Havens questioned McLaurin, through the driver's side window, regarding the registration of the vehicle and whether he had "dropped a joint." McLaurin denied that accusation and instead asserted that he had dropped paperwork.

Trooper Havens then indicated that he smelled marijuana, but McLaurin denied having any in the car. At this point, Trooper Dammer approached the front passenger window of the vehicle, and Trooper Havens directed McLaurin to lower the passenger window. After McLaurin complied, Trooper Dammer also stated that he smelled marijuana. Before they could inquire further, the troopers noticed that the second individual, who had gone into the convenience store, was attempting to walk away briskly. Trooper Dammer returned to the police cruiser and unsuccessfully pursued the individual. Trooper Dammer returned to the scene, parking directly behind the Chevy Impala.

Trooper Havens continued to question McLaurin and request identification, while Trooper Dammer reiterated that he smelled marijuana. Trooper Dammer proceeded to lean into the passenger side of the vehicle, so that his entire upper body was inside the car. It was from this position that Trooper Dammer spotted eight packets of heroin in the front passenger door; no marijuana was ever found. The troopers removed McLaurin from the car and searched it. In addition to the heroin, they seized $1,626.00 in cash and a cell phone. After obtaining a warrant, Trooper Havens discovered incriminating information on the cell phone.

McLaurin was charged with the aforementioned offenses, and before trial, he moved to suppress the heroin and cell phone discovered in the car. The trial court denied the motion, determining that both troopers had probable cause to search McLaurin's car. On December 28, 2017, the Commonwealth filed a notice of intent to introduce certified records of regularly conducted activity, pursuant to Pa.R.E. 902(11). In response, McLaurin filed a motion to preclude the admission of evidence concerning statements he made on March 1, 2017, while being processed for admission to Lycoming County prison. Specifically, McLaurin objected to the admission of evidence of statements he made to Prison Nurse Cynthia Mann denying any personal use of street drugs and the associated intake records from the prison. McLaurin's arguments centered on hearsay and relevance contentions. The trial court also denied this motion.

After a jury convicted McLaurin in February 2018, the trial court imposed an aggregate sentence of three to ten years' incarceration. The instant timely appeal followed.2 McLaurin filed a court ordered Pa.R.A.P. 1925 (b) statement and the trial court filed a responsive opinion Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion, which also referred to the court's earlier opinion issued in support of the court's denial of McLaurin's suppression motion. Initially, appointed counsel for McLaurin filed an Anders3 brief, ostensibly asserting that McLaurin's issues were frivolous. However, this Court concluded that counsel's Anders brief was deficient and therefore remanded the case and directed counsel to file either an advocate's brief or a proper Anders brief. After receiving an extension from this Court, counsel filed the instant advocate's brief wherein McLaurin raises the following issues for our review:

I Whether the trial court's factual finding were supported by the record, and thus the trial court misapplied the law and erred in denying [McLaurin's] motion to suppress?
II Whether the trial court erred in its decision to allow the introduction of hearsay evidence in the form of testimony by a prison nurse and admission of the related intake assessment?

McLaurin's Br. at 7.

In his first issue, McLaurin contends that the trial court erred by failing to grant his motion to suppress evidence obtained incident to the troopers'search of his car. The thrust of McLaurin's argument is twofold. First, McLaurin asserts that Trooper Havens' initial interaction with him constituted an investigatory detention rather than a mere encounter, as characterized by the trooper. To this end, McLaurin avers that the factual circumstances surrounding his initial interaction with the troopers would cause a reasonable person to believe that he was not free to leave and in fact was subject to a detention. McLaurin argues that when the troopers approached his car they parked their vehicle directly behind his, thereby blocking his means of egress. Further, McLaurin maintains that he was also blocked from leaving by the fact that Trooper Havens approached the closed driver's side door of his car.

McLaurin likens the facts of the instant case to those presented in Commonwealth v. DeHart, 745 A.2d 633 (Pa.Super. 2000). In that case, troopers approached a stopped vehicle in their cruiser and asked the occupants, "[W]hat's going on here?" Id. at 635. This Court concluded that although that interaction was a mere encounter, once the troopers got out of their vehicle and approached the defendant's car, the interaction became an investigative detention. Id. at 638.

Here, McLaurin cites DeHart to argue that Troopers Havens and Dammer subjected him to an investigative detention by alighting from their vehicle and approaching the closed driver's side door of his vehicle. Further, McLaurin points out that the troopers observed him and another unidentified individual only rummaging around in the vehicle before the troopersapproached. Thus, McLaurin asserts that the troopers did not have reasonable suspicion to support their investigative detention of him. Accordingly, McLaurin maintains that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress all evidence emanating from his allegedly unlawful investigative detention.

The second element of McLaurin's suppression argument concerns his contention that the troopers did not have probable cause to search his car. While noting that both troopers stated that they smelled marijuana coming from his vehicle, McLaurin posits that this olfactory observation could not possibly be true because no marijuana was ultimately found in his car. He argues that the trial court's reliance upon Commonwealth v. Gary, 91 A.3d 102 (Pa. 2014) (plurality), and Commonwealth v. Stoner, 344 A.2d 633 (Pa.Super. 1995), is misplaced. He contends that those cases are distinguishable because although the officers at issue in both of those cases were deemed to have probable cause to search vehicles after noting the odor of marijuana, in both cases marijuana was ultimately found.

On review of an order denying a motion to suppress, we "determine whether the certified record supports the suppression court's factual findings and the legitimacy of the inferences and legal conclusions drawn from those findings." Commonwealth v. Griffin, 24 A.3d 1037, 1041 (Pa.Super. 2011). In making this assessment, we "consider only the evidence of the prosecution's witnesses and so much of the defense as, fairly read in the context of the record as a whole, remains uncontradicted." Id. If the recordsupports the factual findings of the suppression court, we reverse "only if there is an error in the legal conclusions drawn from those factual findings." Id. Whether an officer's undisputed testimony reflects that a seizure occurred is a question of law. Commonwealth v. Au, 42 A.3d 1002, 1006 (Pa. 2012).

McLaurin challenges the characterization of his initial encounter with the troopers as constituting a "mere encounter." "The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 8 of [the Pennsylvania] Constitution protect citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures." Commonwealth v. Young, 162 A.3d 524, 527-28 (Pa.Super. 2017). Citizens' interactions with police fall into one of three categories: (1) mere encounters, (2) investigative detentions, or (3) custodial arrests. Id. at 528. A "mere encounter can be any formal or informal interaction between an officer and a citizen, but will normally be an inquiry by the officer of a citizen." Id. A mere encounter does not require the subject to stop or respond, and does not require the police to have any level of suspicion. Id. at 529. An "investigative detention" "subjects a suspect to a stop and a period of detention, but does not...

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