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State v. Hill

Supreme Court of West Virginia

April 10, 2017

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
Latizhon Hill, Defendant Below, Petitioner

         Jackson County 15-F-56


         Petitioner Latizhon Hill, by counsel Courtney L. Ahlborn, appeals the Circuit Court of Jackson County's January 13, 2016, order sentencing her to a term of incarceration of one to five years for her conviction of one count of conspiracy to commit a felony. The State, by counsel David A. Stackpole, filed a response and a supplemental appendix. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying her motion to suppress evidence.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In April of 2015, petitioner was driving her vehicle in Ravenswood, West Virginia. Petitioner's co-defendant, Candice Brown, was a passenger in the vehicle. Officer A.R. Boggess of the Ravenswood Police Department observed what he believed was "a broken tail lamp [or] a broken brake light" on the vehicle and initiated a traffic stop. Officer Boggess later explained that petitioner appeared nervous, and he noticed several small empty plastic bags in the center console. Consequently, Officer Boggess asked petitioner to exit the vehicle, and he further asked her if he could search the vehicle. Petitioner did not consent to a search of her vehicle. Officer Boggess then learned that petitioner's driver's license was suspended through the State of South Carolina. Officer Boggess also learned that petitioner had a criminal history that included drug possession charges. Approximately six minutes after initiating the stop, Officer Boggess radioed for a canine unit to respond to the scene. Officer Boggess then requested that petitioner exit the vehicle, and she complied. Approximately twenty-five minutes after the officer initiated the traffic stop, the canine unit arrived. Shortly thereafter, the canine "hit on the vehicle" for the presence of drugs. Officers searched the vehicle and found over 500 grams of heroin in a bag in the trunk. Both petitioner and her co-defendant were arrested, and the vehicle was towed. Approximately one week later, petitioner's father and another relative took photographs of the vehicle's broken tail lights.

          In June of 2015, petitioner was indicted on one count of possession with intent to deliver heroin and one count of conspiracy to commit a felony. In August of 2015, petitioner filed a motion to suppress "all evidence obtained as a result of the search of [her] vehicle." In her motion, petitioner argued that the search of her vehicle was illegal because police extended her traffic stop for thirty minutes without reasonable suspicion to allow a police canine unit to sniff the vehicle. Petitioner's motion did not allege that the traffic stop was illegal.

         In early September of 2015, petitioner filed a second motion to suppress the evidence located in her vehicle. Petitioner's second motion was identical to the first motion to suppress filed in August of 2015. On the same date that petitioner filed her second motion, the circuit court held a suppression hearing. The circuit court took up petitioner's motion to suppress as well as her co-defendant's motion to suppress. At that hearing, the circuit court heard evidence and argument regarding the circumstances of the search of petitioner's vehicle as a result of the traffic stop and the seizure of drugs that followed. Officer Boggess testified that he stopped petitioner's vehicle because of what he believed was a "broken brake light." Officer Boggess also testified that he further observed that the taillight of petitioner's vehicle had a break "the size of a golf ball" and the lens cover was "busted out." Petitioner admitted that the vehicle had a crack in the taillight, and one of the photographs taken by petitioner's relatives was admitted into evidence.

         By order entered on September 12, 2015, the circuit court found that the traffic stop was lawful and that Officer Boggess had probable cause to stop the vehicle based on his personal observation of the vehicle's defective lamp, which constituted a misdemeanor traffic violation. The circuit court specifically noted in its order that "[t]he fact that it was a defective 'signal lamp' as opposed to what the officer believed was a defective 'stop lamp, ' is of little moment." The circuit court further noted in its order that the traffic stop was not completed by the time the canine unit arrived because, in addition to other evidence, both petitioner and her co-defendant had suspended licenses and could not have driven the vehicle away.

         In October of 2015, petitioner entered a guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to commit a felony on the condition that she reserved her right to appeal the circuit court's denial of her motion to suppress. Under the plea agreement, the charge of possession with intent to deliver heroin was dismissed; petitioner agreed to testify against her co-defendant; and the State would stand silent at sentencing. In December of 2015, the circuit court accepted the plea agreement. Petitioner was ultimately sentenced to one to five years in prison with 238 days of credit for time served. This appeal followed.

We have held as follows:
"In reviewing the findings of fact and conclusions of law of a circuit court . . ., we apply a three-pronged standard of review. We review the decision . . . under an abuse of discretion standard; the underlying facts are reviewed under a clearly erroneous standard; and questions of law and interpretations of statutes and rules are subject to a de novo review." Syllabus Point 1, State v. Head, 198 W.Va. 298, 480 S.E.2d 507 (1996).

Syl. Pt. 1, in part, State v. Georgius, 225 W.Va. 716, 696 S.E.2d 18 (2010). Further, we have explained as follows:

1."When reviewing a ruling on a motion to suppress, an appellate court should construe all facts in the light most favorable to the State, as it was the prevailing party below. Because of the highly fact-specific nature of a motion to suppress, particular deference is given to the findings of the circuit court because it had the opportunity to observe the witnesses and to hear testimony on the issues. Therefore, the circuit court's factual findings are reviewed for clear error." Syllabus point 1, State v. Lacy, 196 W.Va. 104, 468 S.E.2d 719 (1996).
2. "In contrast to a review of the circuit court's factual findings, the ultimate determination as to whether a search or seizure was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 6 of Article III of the West Virginia Constitution is a question of law that is reviewed de novo. Similarly, an appellate court reviews de novo whether a search warrant was too broad. Thus, a circuit court's denial of a motion to suppress evidence will be affirmed unless it is unsupported by substantial evidence, based on an erroneous interpretation of the law, or, ...

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