State v. Jennings

Docket NumberA21A1396,A21A1355
Decision Date08 February 2022
CourtGeorgia Court of Appeals


Dillard, Presiding Judge.

In Case Number A21A1355, the State appeals from the grant of a motion to suppress in favor of Sherri Lynn Jennings, arguing the trial court erred by concluding that (1) an officer made an unlawful intrusion onto her property, (2) an officer unlawfully parked close to her vehicle, and (3) the seizure of her vehicle was unlawful. In Case Number A21A1396 Jennings cross appeals from the trial court's denial of her motion to exclude statements she made to investigators arguing that those statements were derivative of an unlawful search, and alternatively, that the statements should have been excluded because they were made while she was in custody without having been read her Miranda rights. For the reasons set forth infra in Case Number A21A1355, we vacate in part, affirm in part, and remand the case with direction; and in Case No. A21A1396, we affirm.

Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the trial court's judgment, [1] the record shows that on the evening of October 9, 2017, law enforcement was notified of a hit-and-run on Dawson Forest Road in Dawson County, in which a pedestrian was struck and killed. The only evidence left at the scene was a passenger-side mirror lying on the pavement beside the victim, which came from a black 2009/2010 Ford Escape, Mercury Mariner, or Mazda Tribute. An investigator then searched computer-aided dispatch reports for any prior contacts with law enforcement by vehicles matching that description. Ultimately, a list of 17 vehicles was compiled and law enforcement visited almost all of them to view their exteriors for a missing mirror. This list included a 2009 Ford Escape the investigator believed was located at 6345 Elmo Road in Cumming. The investigator traveled to that address, which is located in a heavily wooded rural area off of a gravel driveway shared by and split up among several residences. The investigator testified that the driveway is "kind of a good distance off the road," is not visible from the road, and the house itself is not visible as you begin the approach up the driveway. According to the investigator, his intention-upon arriving at the Elmo Road address-was to knock on the door and speak with the residents.

As the investigator drove up a slight hill to the house, he spotted the back end of a black Ford Escape parked ahead and "sticking out" in an area on the left side of the house.[2] And upon closer approach to this area, by parking his car beyond the front of the house and behind the Ford Escape (so that it would be unable to leave), he noticed the passenger-side mirror was missing. The investigator later referred to the vehicle's location on the driveway as a "parking area" just past the front of the house, "after you pass the front door."

Having made this observation, the investigator immediately radioed dispatch for assistance. And around this same time, Jennings's husband came out of the house and approached him. The husband immediately asked what the investigator was doing there, to which he responded, "[Y]ou know what I'm doing here," and then inquired as to how the vehicle was damaged. The husband said his wife hit a deer with her vehicle, and the investigator then requested that he call his wife and ask her to come home to be questioned.

In the interim, Jennings's husband walked over to the vehicle and showed the investigator his attempt to repair the headlight. The husband also told the investigator that he washed the car and tried to push out a dent in the front of the vehicle. The husband then took the investigator to an area on the right side of the home after the investigator asked where the missing pieces for the headlight assembly were located. In this same area, the investigator saw at least one open book regarding courtroom procedure.

At some point, the Jenningses' son came home, and he too claimed that his mother struck a deer while driving the vehicle. And when Jennings finally arrived home, the investigator asked if she wanted to tell him anything, and she said that she "thought she hit a deer" on Dawson Forest Road. Around this same time, seven other officers arrived on the scene to secure the vehicle; and shortly thereafter, Jennings was placed under arrest and the vehicle seized.

Two days after the vehicle was towed, law enforcement secured a search warrant. Jennings was then indicted on charges of first-degree vehicular homicide, hit and run, failure to report an accident, and failure to maintain lane. She subsequently filed a motion to suppress the vehicle and other evidence found at her residence, and also moved to exclude statements she made to law enforcement.

The trial court granted Jennings's motion to suppress the vehicle and other evidence, reasoning that because law enforcement did not possess a warrant or obtain consent to search the property and there were no exigent circumstances, the intrusion onto the curtilage of her property and subsequent seizure of evidence violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. But on the question of statements Jennings made to law enforcement during the same visit to her property, the trial court denied the motion to exclude after concluding that those statements were made voluntarily and not while in custody. These appeals follow.


1. The State argues the trial court erred by concluding that the investigator acted unlawfully by (1) intruding onto the Jenningses' property, (2) parking his patrol car too close to Jennings's vehicle, and (3) seizing Jennings's vehicle. Instead, the State maintains (1) the investigator lawfully entered onto the property to conduct a "knock and talk"; (2) the investigator was authorized to move closer to the vehicle because he had reasonable, articulable suspicion; and (3) that probable cause supported a warrantless seizure of the vehicle and other instrumentalities of the crime.

For the reasons that follow, we vacate in part, affirm in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

When the facts material to a motion to suppress are disputed, it "generally is for the trial judge to resolve those disputes and determine the material facts."[3] As a result, we must (1) "accept those findings unless they are clearly erroneous"; (2) "construe the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to the factual findings and judgment of the trial court"; and (3) "limit [our] consideration of the disputed facts to those expressly found by the trial court."[4] With these guiding principles in mind, we will now address each of the State's contentions.

a Initial Entry to Conduct Knock and Talk.

For starters, the State argues that the investigator's initial entry onto the curtilage[5] of Jennings's property did not require exigent circumstances because it was not to do a search of the property, but was instead done to conduct a "knock and talk." Warrantless searches of the curtilage are, of course, "per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment[6]-subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions."[7] And as the State rightly notes, one such exception is a "knock and talk" procedure, in which law enforcement approaches a home or residence to investigate a crime or make inquiries of the occupants.[8] But the trial court found the investigator proceeded beyond the area necessary to conduct a knock and talk by driving further up the driveway and parking directly behind the vehicle.[9] As a result, the court concluded the officer began a search of the property without a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances.

Further, the trial court concluded that even if the investigator had been in a lawful position from which to view the vehicle after passing the front of the house (and thus the front door), there were no exigent circumstances or consent by which the officer could search the remainder of the curtilage or seize the vehicle without first obtaining a warrant. Indeed, not only must an officer be "lawfully located in a place from which the object can be plainly seen, "[10] he or she must also have "a lawful right of access to the object itself."[11] This is true even when items of contraband are visible within an officer's plain view.[12] And an officer gains lawful access to an item in plain view by "obtaining a search warrant, obtaining consent to search, or the existence of exigent circumstances."[13] This, the officers did not do.

Having considered all of the foregoing, we agree with the trial court that the investigator exceeded the scope of a permissible knock and talk after his initial entry onto the property in violation of the Fourth Amendment.[14] b. Reasonable, Articulable Suspicion. Next, the State contends the investigator had reasonable, articulable suspicion that the vehicle on Jennings's property was the one being sought by law enforcement, and therefore he was authorized to move closer to the car after the initial approach to conduct a knock and talk. But the State did not make this argument to the trial court below. And as this Court is one for the correction of legal errors, we have no jurisdiction to address issues raised for the first time on appeal.[15]

Furthermore even if the State had made this argument below, it abandoned this contention on appeal by failing to support it with legal argument and citation to relevant binding authority.[16] We remind the State that "the requirements as to the form of appellate briefs were created, not to provide an obstacle, but to aid parties in presenting their arguments in a manner...

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