State v. Nieves

Decision Date15 November 2004
Docket NumberNo. 10,10
Citation383 Md. 573,861 A.2d 62
PartiesSTATE of Maryland v. Chris NIEVES.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Edward J. Kelley, Assistant Attorney General (J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, on brief), Baltimore, for petitioner.

William E. Nolan, Assistant Public Defender (Nancy S. Forster, Public Defender, on brief), Baltimore, for respondent.



This case requires us to consider whether a strip search conducted incident to a lawful arrest for a minor traffic offense is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. We conclude that, under the circumstances of this case, the strip search conducted incident to arrest for a minor traffic offense was unreasonable, and thus, violative of the Fourth Amendment.

I. Background
A. Facts

On January 22, 2002, at approximately 7:45a.m., Officers Jason Ackerman and Jason Dietz of the Hagerstown Police Department, were on patrol in their vehicle, in the area of Wakefield Road and West Franklin Street. They had stopped their vehicle approximately six feet behind a burgundy Toyota Takoma truck, which was sitting at the intersection stop sign. While the officers were behind the truck, they noticed that the driver, later identified as Chris Nieves, was having "some kind of problem around the shifting area." The truck then began to drift back, "as if the clutch was engaged and it wasn't in gear," and struck the officers' vehicle. Officer Ackerman got out of the patrol car, approached Nieves, and asked Nieves, the sole occupant of the truck, for a valid driver's license. Nieves responded that he did not possess a valid driver's license in any state or any photo identification.

After the officers reported the accident to police dispatch, they learned that the truck was registered to a female who had been reported missing by her parents ten days earlier. In response to their question about his identity, Nieves replied that his name was "Nathan Nieves" and that his birth date was June 26, 1976. A subsequent search of police records failed to identify any person under that name. During the encounter, Nieves appeared "calm and relaxed" to the officers.

A third police officer, Jason Batistig, arrived at the scene within a matter of minutes, pursuant to police department policy, in order to investigate the accident involving the police patrol car. Officers Batistig and Dietz began to question Nieves about his identity and the truck's ownership. When asked again by the officers for his identity, Nieves supplied the same birth date but instead gave a different first name, "Chris," with the same last name. The dispatcher ran a search for "Chris Nieves" and found that Nieves' driving privileges were suspended and that a state identification card had been issued to him. When asked how he came to be in possession of the truck, Nieves responded that "he got it from a guy named Mike" from West Virginia. Officer Batistig stated that Nieves was then a little nervous, fidgety, and evasive during the interrogation. Nieves was placed under arrest for giving false information to the police and for obstructing a police officer.

Nieves consented to a pat down, after Officer Ackerman requested permission, to insure that Nieves did not have weapons, because a crime could have been committed in light of the fact that a "female was missing." During the pat down, Officer Ackerman found a roll of money totaling $377.00 in Nieves' pocket. The officers then searched the truck that Nieves was driving and found no contraband or weapons. Officer Batistig thereafter transported Nieves to the police station.

After Officer Batistig and Nieves arrived at the Hagerstown police station, they were met by Lieutenant Richard Johnson, who was investigating the disappearance of Melissa Langdon, the registered owner of the truck Nieves was driving. Based upon information provided by Langdon's parents, Lieutenant Johnson was aware that Langdon's disappearance was allegedly linked to drugs. Lieutenant Johnson immediately recognized Nieves as having been arrested twice in the year 2000 for drug offenses.1 Although not aware of the $377.00 found on Nieves' person, Lieutenant Johnson ordered a strip search of Nieves during the booking procedures based upon "the information regarding the missing person and the prior history of drugs." At the request of Lieutenant Johnson, Detective Schultz conducted the strip search, which produced two small plastic baggies containing individually wrapped baggies of cocaine that were protruding from Nieves' rectum.

B. Procedural History

On January 22, 2002, Nieves was charged with possession of cocaine,2 possession with intent to distribute cocaine,3 and five minor traffic violations: Failure to control speed,4 driving without a valid license,5 negligent driving,6 giving a false name,7 and giving false accident report information.8 Nieves was also charged with the common law crimes of obstructing and hindering a police officer. Prior to trial, Nieves filed a motion to suppress the cocaine that was seized during the strip search arguing that the arrest was unlawful and the strip search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. On May 22, 2002, a suppression hearing was held on the motion, during which the court heard testimony from Officers Jason Ackerman, Jason Batistig, and Lieutenant Richard Johnson, and admitted the stipulated testimony of Detective Schultz. The officers' testimony recounted the facts as they have been presented here.

In an order dated June 7, 2002, the Circuit Court denied Nieves' motion to suppress stating that "detaining the defendant under the totality of the circumstances and the subsequent search were reasonable." On October 8, 2002, the case proceeded to a bench trial in which Nieves was convicted of possession with intent to distribute cocaine and the lesser included offense of possession of cocaine. Subsequently, Nieves was sentenced to ten years imprisonment without the possibility of parole. He was also convicted of driving without a license, negligent driving, and failure to control speed, for which the court imposed monetary fines. The court found Nieves not guilty of the charges of obstructing an officer, giving false information, and giving false accident report information.

On appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, Nieves argued that the Circuit Court's denial of the suppression motion should be reversed because the officers lacked probable cause to arrest him. Nieves also argued that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to strip search him subsequent to his arrest for a minor traffic offense and that the search was unconstitutional as violative of the Fourth Amendment.

The Court of Special Appeals addressed the probable cause issue and found that the officers lacked probable cause to arrest Nieves for obstructing an officer. The court found, however, that the officers did have probable cause to arrest Nieves for the multiple traffic violations. Because probable cause existed, the court reasoned, a search incident to the arrest was permissible under the circumstances.9

The Court of Special Appeals then turned to the question of whether the officers had reasonable, articulable suspicion to strip search Nieves incident to arrest for minor offenses and concluded that the strip search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The court applied a balancing test by weighing Nieves' privacy interests against the government interest in conducting the strip search. In applying the balancing test, the intermediate appellate court held that strip searches incident to an arrest for a minor offense should not occur unless the arresting officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the individual is presently in possession of weapons or contraband. The court further reasoned that conducting a strip search solely on Nieves' past criminal record would create a per se rule that would shift the determination of reasonable suspicion from the individual arrestee to a class or category of offenders. Additionally, the court noted that it was "far too great a leap to conclude that any possible narcotics involvement of the missing female ipso facto carried over to [Nieves] simply because he was the driver of the vehicle." Thus, the court concluded that based upon the totality of the circumstances, the officers lacked reasonable, articulable suspicion to conduct the strip search and reversed the judgment of the trial court.

The State filed a petition for a writ of certiorari in this Court to consider the following question:

Did the Court of Special Appeals err when it determined that the strip search conducted by the police was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment?

We granted the petition and issued the writ of certiorari. State v. Nieves, 380 Md. 617, 846 A.2d 401 (2004). We hold that under the circumstances of this case, the strip search was unreasonable as a search incident to arrest for a minor crime, and therefore, Nieves' motion to suppress the evidenced seized from the search should have been granted. Thus, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

II. Standard of Review

In reviewing a Circuit Court's grant or denial of a motion to suppress evidence under the Fourth Amendment, we ordinarily consider only the information contained in the record of the suppression hearing and not the trial record. Laney v. State, 379 Md. 522, 533, 842 A.2d 773, 779 (2004); Dashiell v. State, 374 Md. 85, 93, 821 A.2d 372, 376 (2003) (quoting State v. Collins, 367 Md. 700, 706-07, 790 A.2d 660, 663-64 (2002)) (citing Ferris v. State, 355 Md. 356, 368, 735 A.2d 491, 497 (1999)). We view the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn from that evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party on the motion. Laney, 379 Md. at 533, 842 A.2d at 779; Dashiell, 374 at 93, 821 A.2d at 376-77 (quo...

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