State v. Johnson, 22, Sept. Term, 2017

CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Writing for the CourtBarbera, C.J.
Citation183 A.3d 119,458 Md. 519
Parties STATE of Maryland v. Casey O. JOHNSON
Docket NumberNo. 22, Sept. Term, 2017,22, Sept. Term, 2017
Decision Date20 April 2018

458 Md. 519
183 A.3d 119

STATE of Maryland

No. 22, Sept. Term, 2017

Court of Appeals of Maryland.

April 20, 2018

Argued by Sarah Page Pritzlaff, Assistant Attorney General (Brian E. Frosh, Attorney General of Maryland of Baltimore, MD) on brief, for Petitioner

Argued by Sam Cowin, Assigned Public Defender (Eric S. Parnes and James H. Boykin, Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP of Washington, DC; Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender of Maryland of Baltimore, MD) on brief, for Respondent

Argued before: Barbera, C.J., Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, Hotten, Getty, JJ.

Barbera, C.J.

183 A.3d 122
458 Md. 523

We issued a writ of certiorari in this case to consider whether the police had probable cause to search the trunk of a car owned and driven by Ms. Casey O. Johnson, Respondent, based in part on drug evidence found on the person of her front-seat passenger. We hold, based on the facts found at the suppression hearing viewed in their totality, that there was probable cause to conduct the search. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals, which came to the opposite conclusion.


The Suppression Hearing

Respondent and Anthony Haqq, her front-seat passenger, were charged with conspiracy to possess marijuana with intent to distribute and possession with intent to distribute. Both filed motions to suppress the evidence found by the police during an extended detention that had begun as a traffic stop. A joint hearing was conducted before the Circuit Court for Montgomery County on the co-defendants' respective motions to suppress. The following facts, either undisputed or expressly found by the suppression court, were drawn from witness testimony and the audio and video feed from a police vehicle's dashboard camera—colloquially referred to as a "dashcam"—which was played and admitted into evidence at the hearing. Montgomery County Police Officers Robert Sheehan and Michael Mancuso testified for the State, and Mr. Haqq testified for the defense. Respondent did not testify. The suppression court accepted the State's version of the events, as described by the two officers and supported by the dashcam recording.

458 Md. 524

At the time of the stop, Officer Sheehan was assigned to the Germantown District Community Action Team ("Community Action Team"), a unit assigned to high-crime areas for crime suppression. He had served as a police officer for twelve years, including one year on the Special Investigations Criminal Street Gang Unit and one year on the Special Investigations Narcotics Enforcement Team. Officer Sheehan had taken several classes concentrating on drug interdiction, completing 417 hours of training on the subject.

Officer Sheehan testified that one evening in January 2015 he was patrolling a high-crime area of Germantown, Maryland. As he approached a red traffic light, Officer Sheehan pulled directly behind what later was determined to be a four-door Mitsubishi sedan owned and driven on that evening by Respondent. Officer Sheehan noticed that the car had a defective brake light. He activated his vehicle's emergency equipment, which triggered the video and audio recording via his vehicle's dashcam. The recording captured much of what ensued.

Officer Sheehan testified that he turned on the vehicle's spotlight and shined it through the rear window of Respondent's car. When the traffic light turned to green, Respondent drove through the intersection. Officer Sheehan followed and was able to see Respondent and a front-seat passenger, later identified as Mr. Haqq, through the rear window. Officer Sheehan was unable to discern at that time the

183 A.3d 123

presence of a third occupant of the car, Kevin Helms, who was seated in the backseat.1

Respondent continued to drive for twenty-five seconds before turning into a commercial parking lot, where she stopped. As he followed, Officer Sheehan could see with the aid of the spotlight that Respondent and Mr. Haqq were making "furtive movements." Officer Sheehan saw Respondent's left hand on the steering wheel as she reached over the center console with her right arm, "reaching in that area and reaching over

458 Md. 525

towards Mr. Haqq's seat." Officer Sheehan testified that "[i]t looked like she may have been manipulating something in the center console area." He observed Mr. Haqq moving in his seat at the same time. On three or four occasions, Mr. Haqq "occasionally would lift his rear end up off the seat and then bring it back down, as if he was either trying to reach underneath where he was sitting, or the seat or the floorboard." Based on the above, together with his training and experience, Officer Sheehan's first thought was that Mr. Haqq and Respondent may be trying to conceal drugs or weapons.

Respondent pulled to a stop in a commercial parking lot. Officer Sheehan parked his vehicle behind Respondent's car and approached the driver's side window on foot. As he approached, he shined his flashlight into the car and observed Mr. Haqq leaning over his legs with his hands between them, but he could not see what Mr. Haqq was doing with his hands. When Officer Sheehan identified himself by name, Mr. Haqq "immediately jumped back in his seat ... and pulled his shirt down over his crotch area." Respondent similarly "bounce[d] back like she was in the center console area" and said that she was "looking for [her] registration right now."

Respondent appeared "extremely nervous" despite the routine nature of the stop: her voice was shaking; her hands were trembling; and "the carotid pulse on her neck [was] beating quickly." She fumbled with her wallet for her license, flipping past it several times and having difficulty grasping her license because her hands were trembling. Her nervousness never subsided and was, in Officer Sheehan's estimation, beyond the "normal baseline" level of nervousness that he had observed over his twelve years of law enforcement and "thousands of traffic stops." Throughout, Mr. Haqq sat "like a statue," staring out the window with his sweatshirt "pulled down over his crotch." He remained motionless in that position, even when Respondent asked him to help her retrieve the registration from the glove compartment.

Officer Sheehan testified that, based on those observations, he suspected that something "illegal" was "going on." He

458 Md. 526

returned to his patrol vehicle with Respondent's license and registration and called in a request for assistance from his fellow members of the Community Action Team and a canine unit.

Then, while continuing to observe Respondent's car, Officer Sheehan "start[ed] processing the traffic stop." He accessed an electronic ticketing system, "eTix," and began to input Respondent's information. As part of his typical procedure during traffic stops, he also accessed several systems to conduct a "warrant check" on Respondent. While doing that, Officer Sheehan noticed that Mr. Haqq was no longer sitting "statue-esque" but, rather, was

183 A.3d 124

"moving back and forth," "lifting up off his seat and leaning back," and appearing to "reach[ ] around" the inside of the car.

Officer Dos Santos arrived on the scene while Officer Sheehan was processing Respondent's background checks. Officer Sheehan informed Officer Dos Santos of his observations, and it was agreed that they would await the arrival of a third member of the Community Action Team before retrieving further information from Respondent and the two passengers. Officer Mancuso arrived shortly thereafter.

Officer Sheehan informed Officer Mancuso of what he had discerned from his observations of Respondent and Mr. Haqq. The three officers then approached Respondent's car. Officer Sheehan went to the driver's side window to speak with Respondent, Officer Dos Santos went to the rear seat on the driver's side of the car to speak with Mr. Helms, and Officer Mancuso went to the front passenger side to speak with Mr. Haqq.

Officers Dos Santos and Mancuso obtained identifying information from Messrs. Helms and Haqq as they remained seated in the car. While questioning Mr. Helms, Officer Dos Santos noticed that Mr. Helms was acting "kind of weird," "nervous, or just odd." Officer Mancuso asked Mr. Haqq general questions, but Mr. Haqq "didn't seem too eager to talk" and gave "one-word answers" to some of the questions. During questioning, Mr. Haqq also sat "extremely still in the

458 Md. 527

passenger seat, staring straight ahead through the windshield."

As the other officers were questioning Messrs. Haqq and Helms, Officer Sheehan asked Respondent to step outside so he could show her the defective brake light and "ask her some qualifying questions." As he questioned her, Respondent began each answer with "uh or um," as if she was "trying to think up an answer." When asked who the passengers were,...

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    ...possibly the police.(Emphasis supplied.) When the issue before us is not guilt or innocence but only probable cause, State v. Johnson, 458 Md. 519, 541, 183 A.3d 119 (2018) well states the pivotal criterion as "circumstances sufficiently suspicious to warrant further investigation:The stop ......
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    ...circumstances." Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 371Page 56 (2003). "In short, probable cause 'is not a high bar.'" State v. Johnson, 458 Md. 519, 535 (2018) (quoting District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct. 577, 586 (2018)). The facts recounted above, supra 3-6, that were known to law e......
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