Laney v. State, 44

Decision Date13 February 2004
Docket NumberNo. 44,44
Citation379 Md. 522,842 A.2d 773
PartiesRichmond C. LANEY v. STATE of Maryland.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Julia Doyle Bernhardt, Asst. Public Defender (Stephen E. Harris, Public Defender, on brief), for petitioner.

Rachel Marblestone Kamins, Asst. Atty. Gen. (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Atty. Gen., on brief), for respondent.

Argued before BELL, C.J., RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL, HARRELL, BATTAGLIA and JOHN C. ELDRIDGE (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.


Richard C. Laney was convicted in the Circuit Court for Howard County of unlawful possession of a destructive device and unlawful possession of an explosive without a license. We now review the Circuit Court's denial of Laney's motion to suppress evidence seized during several warrantless searches of Laney's former residence, 3612 Fels Lane in Ellicott City, Maryland. Laney asserts that, although he did not hold title to 3612 Fels Lane, he had an expectation of privacy in the property, and the entry upon the premises violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. We hold that Laney had no reasonable expectation of privacy in 3612 Fels Lane because ownership of the property had passed to the Department of Veterans Affairs (hereinafter the "DVA"), which, accordingly, had authority to enter, possess, and give consent for the authorities to search the property. Therefore, no Fourth Amendment violation occurred in this case, and the Circuit Court was correct in denying Laney's motion to suppress.

I. Background
A. Facts

Some time prior to December of 1998, Laney purchased improved real property located at 3612 Fels Lane in Ellicott City, Maryland. To finance the purchase, Laney acquired a loan, which was secured by 3612 Fels Lane and guaranteed by the DVA. Under the DVA loan guarantee, if the lender foreclosed on the loan, it could convey title to the property to the DVA. Laney failed to make payments according to the loan agreement, and, on December 13, 1999, the loan was foreclosed. On December 27, Commercial Federal Mortgage Corporation, the purchaser of 3612 Fels Lane at the foreclosure sale, initiated the process of conveying the property to the DVA by providing it with a "notice of intention to convey." Commercial Federal subsequently conveyed title to 3612 Fels Lane to the DVA on March 17, 2000.

The DVA assigned Brad Criddle the responsibility to "manage" the property, meaning that he would "attend to or look after" the foreclosed property. As part of the management responsibilities, if Criddle were to find a property occupied, he would attempt to contact the person occupying the house to discuss the DVA's eventual possession of the property. Criddle made his first visit to 3612 Fels Lane in December of 1999 and knocked on the door of the house. When he received no response, he left his business card, which provided his name and phone number, identified Criddle as the property manager, and stated that the property was owned by the DVA. During this and subsequent visits, which Criddle made at least once a month, the house appeared to be occupied because personal property could be seen through the windows and objects around the outside of the house would appear to have been moved between visits.

Criddle, however, could not establish contact with anyone at the house until 11:00 a.m. on July 14, 2000, when he stopped by 3612 Fels Lane to encourage whomever was in the home to abandon the property. As he walked toward the front door, he encountered two men, one of whom was Joseph Winkle, who lived across the street. Winkle explained to Criddle that he was there to "rescue" some geese on the property for Laney, the former occupant of the house, who had been his neighbor for fifteen years and was currently in prison.

Winkle explained further that, although he had obtained a key to the house from Laney's brother, he was afraid to enter the house because he believed there were "explosives and weapons" kept there.

Because one of Criddle's responsibilities as a property manager was to "make every effort to get in the house," he asked Winkle to let him inside the house to look around. Winkle agreed and opened the door. Inside the house, Criddle observed, in one room, a couple of olive green objects shaped like "two liter bottle[s]" and marked with "U.S. Army" in black writing and, in another room, "five or six grenades" in a trash can. When he went upstairs, he found "several guns, gun barrels,... camouflage[,] .... kni[v]es, ... [and] numerous shell casings...." Criddle went to the outside shed where he observed "something that looked like a small rocket ... [and] other empty cartridge containers [and] shell casings ... everywhere." Other than the weapons and ammunition, Criddle saw that the bathtub had been removed and that some of the home appliances were sitting on the front porch. This gave Criddle the impression that "somebody was dismantling the house[,]... selling it off piece by piece."

Criddle left the house, called the DVA for instructions on how to proceed, and was told to grant access to the property to local authorities. He called the Howard County Police Department. About an hour and a half after his initial visit to 3612 Fels Lane on July 14, Criddle returned to the property and met Frank McCreary of the DVA and Officer Keith Berry of the Howard County Police Department. Criddle identified himself to Officer Berry and described what he had seen in the house. Criddle then led Officer Berry into the unlocked house, where they looked around for five minutes. Other police officers, including Officer Keith Fisher and the State Fire Marshall arrived at the house and obtained written consent from the DVA to inspect the property. Thereafter, at the request of those officials, personnel of the fire department, Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms ("ATF"), Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI"), and the U.S. Army's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company ("EOD") arrived at the scene.

The police and Army officials thoroughly searched the house, spending several hours taking objects from the house and laying them on a tarp outside on the lawn. The following items, as listed on the EOD Incident Report, were seized and later disposed of by the authorities:

26 M228 Fuze, Grenade; 1 M201A1 Fuze, Grenade; 2 Grenade body, practice; 1 Grenade fuze, model unknown; 9 M117 Boobytrap simulators; 2 Commercial blasting caps; 3 20mm projectile, practice; 1 60mm mortar, illumination; 1 M51 projectile fuze; 1 60mm mortar, practice with residue; 2 M18 smoke grenade; 1 M7A3 smoke grenade, riot; 2 40mm illumination projectiles; 1 British Mill Bomb (grenade); 1 M158 Red star cluster signal; 1 M604 Fuze, mine practice; 1 Boobytrap flare on stake; 3 PML 62 Friction fuze; 1 Vial of black powder; 1 KDM 51A2(20); 1 2.36 inch Rocket; 7 flare pens, with ignitors; 1 20-foot piece of commercial detonating cord; 1 40mm projectile, practice; 10 15mm projectiles, German; 18 Blast simulator; 1 6000psi pressure bottle; 1 81m projectile, practice; 4 pounds of smokeless powder; 1 model rocket motor; 1 DM 28 subcaliber projectile (UEB-T); 1 SWAT Distraction Device (flashbang); 9 fuzes, German; 1 M48 subcaliber projectile; 6 M73 35mm subcaliber rockets, practice (for LAW).

Criddle had the locks of the house changed to a DVA master key lock after all of the law enforcement and military personnel left the house at around 10:00 p.m. on July 14. Three days later, on July 17, 2000, Criddle unlocked 3612 Fels Lane and allowed police officers and agents of the State Fire Marshall to search the house with a K-9 unit. As a result of that search, other items were seized. On July 21, 2000, Criddle again unlocked the house, this time to permit Army officials to look for a radio. He then hired a contractor to clean the property, making it possible for the DVA to market and eventually sell the house.

B. Procedural History

The State charged Laney in the Circuit Court for Howard County with nine counts of possession of a destructive device in violation of Maryland Code, Article 27, Section 139C (1957, 1996 Repl.Vol., 2000 Supp.),1 one count of reckless endangerment in violation of Maryland Code, Article 27, Section 12A-2 (1957, 1996 Repl.Vol., 2000 Supp.),2 and one count of possession of explosives without a license in violation of Maryland Code, Article 38A, Sections 27A and 34C (1957, 1997 Repl.Vol.).3

Laney moved to suppress the evidence obtained from 3612 Fels Lane on the ground that it was seized in violation of Laney's Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. The court denied Laney's motion to suppress, concluding that the searches of 3612 Fels Lane and the seizures of property during those searches were lawful. Assuming that Criddle was a state agent for the purpose of its decision, the court reasoned that Criddle was a legal representative of the DVA, which had acquired title to 3612 Fels Lane and, thus, was the lawful owner of the property on the day of the initial search. The court determined that, as the agent of the lawful owner of the property, Criddle did not need to seek action by the court to enter the house legally. As an alternative basis for its ruling, the court concluded that Criddle "had the right to rely upon the consent" of Winkle, who "arguably was entitled to ... enter the premises." Finally, the court found Criddle's entry was justified because of the "exigency" created when he learned that "munitions" and "explosives" were in the house and that Winkle may have been selling house "fixtures."

The judge then conducted a bench trial on an agreed statement of facts and found Laney guilty of unlawfully possessing an explosive device without a license and one count of unlawfully possessing a destructive device. The State later nolle prossed all remaining counts. The court sentenced Laney to ten years' imprisonment for the possession of a destructive device...

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