Wright v. State

Decision Date02 March 2022
Docket NumberA21A1655
Citation362 Ga.App. 867,870 S.E.2d 484
Parties WRIGHT v. The STATE.
CourtGeorgia Court of Appeals

Lucy Dodd Roth, for Appellant.

Kevin Richard Majeska, Joshua Bradley Smith, Augusta, Jared Tolton Williams, Augusta, for Appellee.

Phipps, Senior Appellate Judge.

A jury found Jamie Courtney Wright guilty of two controlled substance offenses and two firearm offenses. Wright appeals from the denial of his motion for a new trial, arguing that: (i) the trial court erred when it admitted (a) statements he made while detained by law enforcement officers without the benefit of Miranda1 warnings and (b) evidence concerning prior convictions entered after he pled guilty to controlled substance and firearm offenses; and (ii) the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions. For the reasons that follow, while we reject Wright's challenges to the admission of statements he made to officers and to the sufficiency of the evidence, we agree that the trial court improperly admitted the facts underlying Wright's prior guilty pleas, and we reverse his present convictions on that basis.

On appeal from a criminal conviction, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, and the defendant no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence. Krauss v. State , 263 Ga. App. 488, 488 (1), 588 S.E.2d 239 (2003). So viewed, the evidence shows that, in November 2015, a narcotics investigator and other law enforcement officers arrived at a home in Richmond County in search of a fugitive. The homeowner let the officers in and gave consent to search the home. In addition to the homeowner, Wright and another person were in the home at the time. After Wright emerged from a bedroom, the investigator asked him to wait with the other occupants on a screened-in porch. Another officer stood in the yard, "a few feet from the steps leading onto the porch" at that time.

Upon entering the room Wright had vacated, which was now unoccupied, the investigator found a black book bag behind the door. On top of the open book bag's other contents lay a one-gallon plastic bag with more than 47 grams of a green, leafy substance that the investigator initially believed was marijuana but later learned contained a synthetic cannabinoid known as "spice." The investigator then walked out to the porch, where all three occupants were waiting, and asked "who did the bag belong to." At that time, the investigator did not describe the bag he was asking about. Wright, the only one to respond, said that the bag was his. To confirm which bag he was asking about, the investigator retrieved the black book bag and asked Wright if it was his. The record contains no indication that any of the bag's contents were visible to Wright or the others on the porch at that time. Wright responded, "Yeah, that's my bag and everything in it," and he added that the others on the porch "didn't have anything to do with it."

After obtaining Wright's consent to search the bag, the investigator found a handgun, a digital scale, a rolled-up dollar bill with oxycodone powder on it, and 38 smaller bags of "spice." During a search incident to Wright's ensuing arrest, officers also found $605 in small denominations. No personal-use drug paraphernalia — such as rolling papers or smoking devices — was found in the black book bag or on Wright's person. The investigator testified at trial as an expert in narcotics investigation that everything he found was consistent with distribution and not personal use.

Wright testified that he had been dropped off at the home where he was arrested approximately one hour before law enforcement arrived. He claimed that the only bag he had with him at that time was a small red and black bag that contained diapers and other items for his child, and that neither the black book bag at issue here — which he knew nothing about — nor its contents were his.

Wright further testified that he had gone into the room where the black book bag was found to look out of a window when the officers arrived. According to Wright, he never told officers that he owned the black book bag but instead simply claimed ownership of the red and black bag he brought with him.

At the conclusion of the first part of Wright's bifurcated trial, the jury found him guilty of possession with intent to distribute a Schedule I controlled substance ("spice"), possession of a Schedule II controlled substance (oxycodone), and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. During the second part of the bifurcated trial, the trial court admitted Wright's 2011 convictions and sentences for possession with intent to distribute marijuana and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime, following which the jury found him guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.2

1. On appeal, Wright challenges the denial of his pre-trial motion to suppress the investigator's testimony that Wright made two statements claiming ownership of the black book bag and its contents. He contends that his statements were inadmissible as the products of a custodial interrogation that occurred before officers advised him of his Miranda rights. We disagree.3

In reviewing a trial court's decision on a motion to suppress, we accept the trial court's rulings on disputed facts unless clearly erroneous, but review the application of the law to the facts de novo. State v. Hammond , 313 Ga. App. 882, 884, 723 S.E.2d 89 (2012). We construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court's decision. State v. Holler , 224 Ga. App. 66, 71 (2) (b), 479 S.E.2d 780 (1996). "[I]n conducting our review, we may consider trial testimony in addition to the testimony submitted during the motion to suppress hearing." Thompson v. State , 313 Ga. App. 844, 846 (1), 723 S.E.2d 85 (2012) (citation and punctuation omitted).

The Fifth Amendment bars the admission of an accused's statements made during a custodial interrogation, unless he first is advised of and voluntarily waives his Miranda rights. Gardner v. State , 261 Ga. App. 10, 11, 582 S.E.2d 7 (2003) ; see Miranda v. Arizona , 384 U. S. 436, 444-445, 478-479 (III), 86 S.Ct. 1602, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). "The issue of whether a person is in custody for Miranda purposes is a mixed question of law and fact, and the trial court's determination will not be disturbed unless it is clearly erroneous." Pugh v. State , 323 Ga. App. 31, 36 (2), 747 S.E.2d 101 (2013) (citation and punctuation omitted).

The test to determine whether a detainee is in custody for Miranda purposes is whether a reasonable person in the detainee's position would have thought the detention would not be temporary. The safeguards prescribed by Miranda become applicable only after a detainee's freedom of action is curtailed to a degree associated with formal arrest.

Owens v. State , 308 Ga. App. 374, 378 (2), 707 S.E.2d 584 (2011) (citation and punctuation omitted); see Miranda , 384 U. S. at 477 (III), 86 S.Ct. 1602 (explaining that protections of that decision apply "when the individual is first subjected to police interrogation while in custody at the station or otherwise deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way").

When making this determination,

a court must examine all of the circumstances surrounding the interrogation .... Whether a suspect is in custody does not depend upon the subjective views harbored by either the interrogating officers or the person being questioned. Instead, the only relevant inquiry is how a reasonable person in the suspect's position would have understood the situation. A reasonable person is one neither guilty of criminal conduct and thus overly apprehensive nor insensitive to the seriousness of the circumstances.

Chavez-Ortega v. State , 331 Ga. App. 500, 502-503 (1), 771 S.E.2d 179 (2015) (citations and punctuation omitted); accord Pugh , 323 Ga. App. at 36 (2), 747 S.E.2d 101 ("Unless a reasonable person in the suspect's situation would perceive that he was in custody, Miranda warnings are not necessary.") (citation and punctuation omitted). Thus, "a custodial situation does not arise even if an officer believes he has probable cause to arrest a defendant, where the officer takes no overt step to communicate that belief." Pugh , 323 Ga. App. at 37 (2), 747 S.E.2d 101 (citation and punctuation omitted); see Arce v. State , 245 Ga. App. 466, 466-467, 538 S.E.2d 128 (2000) (probable cause for an arrest, standing alone, does not convert a temporary detention into a formal arrest), disapproved in part on other grounds by State v. Turnquest , 305 Ga. 758, 775 & n. 15, 827 S.E.2d 865 (2019).

"[A]s a general rule, one who is the subject of a general on-the-scene investigation is not in custody though he may not be free to leave during the investigation." State v. Lucas , 265 Ga. App. 242, 244 (2), 593 S.E.2d 707 (2004) (citation and punctuation omitted); see Miranda , 384 U. S. at 477-478 (III), 86 S.Ct. 1602 (the requirements of Miranda do not apply to "[g]eneral on-the-scene questioning as to facts surrounding a crime or other general questioning of citizens in the fact-finding process" because "[i]n such situations the compelling atmosphere inherent in the process of in-custody interrogation is not necessarily present"). In that situation, officers may make inquiries "solely to determine whether there currently is any danger to them or other persons" and "may even temporarily detain anyone who tries to leave before the preliminary investigation is completed." State v. Wintker , 223 Ga. App. 65, 67, 476 S.E.2d 835 (1996). A detention accompanied by such inquiries does not trigger Miranda ’s requirements "unless the questioning is aimed at obtaining information to establish a suspect's guilt."4 Id. (citations and punctuation omitted); accord Thompson , 313 Ga. App. at 847-848 (1), 723 S.E.2d 85 ; Lucas , 265 Ga. App. at 244 (2), 593 S.E.2d 707 ; see Futch v. State , 145 Ga. App. 485, 486, 488-489 (3), 243 S.E.2d 621 (1978) (a question...

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