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State v. Saunders

Supreme Court of West Virginia

September 25, 2017

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
Jason Devon Saunders, Defendant Below, Petitioner

         Harrison County 16-F-149-3


         Petitioner Jason Devon Saunders, by counsel Jason T. Gain, appeals the Circuit Court of Harrison County's July 27, 2016, order denying his motion to suppress evidence. The State, by counsel Elizabeth Grant, filed a response. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motion to suppress.

         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 October of 2016, law enforcement officers conducted a warrantless search and seizure of petitioner's motel room located in the Towne House East Motor Lodge ("motel") in Harrison County, West Virginia. The resulting police report stated that law enforcement officers were called to the motel after a motel staff member found a grocery bag of heroin and a Pennsylvania State identification card in a motel room. The employee placed the heroin and identification card on the front desk and another employee called the police. Before law enforcement officers arrived, an unknown male retrieved the bag from the front desk and exited the motel. Law enforcement officers arrived at the motel and an officer recognized petitioner's name from the motel room registration entry sheet. That officer then contacted petitioner's federal probation officer and obtained a recent photograph of petitioner. The motel employee identified petitioner as the man that retrieved the bag of heroin. Law enforcement officers then went to petitioner's motel room. A woman in the room allowed the officers to enter the room and confirmed petitioner's presence there. The officers heard sounds coming from the bathroom and the toilet flushing after which petitioner exited the bathroom in the motel room. Believing that petitioner was attempting to destroy evidence, law enforcement officers entered the bathroom and conducted a warrantless search. They observed a bundle of heroin in the toilet bowl and another bundle on the floor. The officer ordered the woman and petitioner out of the motel room. Thereafter, one of the officers left the motel and obtained a search warrant for petitioner's room with a supporting affidavit. Petitioner was later indicted during the May of 2016 term of court on one count of possession with intent to deliver heroin.

         In June of 2016, petitioner, by counsel, filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized by the search warrant on the grounds that the search warrant affidavit contained information offered by Task Force Agent Lawrence Sylvester that is intentionally false and "a reckless disregard of the truth." Following a hearing, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion to suppress seized evidence, finding that the search warrant was valid on "all bases" and that exigent circumstances existed even if the search warrant had been invalid.

         In August of 2016, following plea negations with respondent, petitioner entered a guilty plea to one count of possession with intent to deliver heroin on the condition that he reserve his right to appeal the circuit court's denial of his motion to suppress. Under the plea agreement, the State retained the right to argue for enhancement of the sentence for a second offense drug conviction under West Virginia Code § 60A-4-408; agreed not to file a recidivist petition under West Virginia Code § 61-11-18; and permitted petitioner to enter into the conditional plea agreement under Rule 11(a)(2) of the West Virginia Rules of Criminal Procedure. In July of 2016, the circuit court accepted the plea agreement. On August 24, 2016, the circuit court ultimately sentenced petitioner to a term of incarceration of not less than two nor more than thirty years with 232 days of credit for time served. Petitioner now appeals the circuit court's order denying his motion to suppress evidence.

         We have held:

"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 that:

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, based on the entire record, it is clear that a mistake has been made." Syllabus point 2, State v. Lacy, 196 W.Va. 104, 468 S.E.2d 719 (1996).

Syl. Pts. 1 & 2, State v. Bookheimer, 221 W.Va. 720, 656 S.E.2d 471 (2007).

         On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence located in his motel room because the "search warrant affidavit prepared by law enforcement was inadequate to establish probable cause" for said search warrant. We have held that a search warrant is supported by probable cause when

the facts and circumstances provided to a magistrate in a written affidavit are sufficient to warrant the belief of a prudent person of reasonable caution that a crime has been committed and that the specific fruits, instrumentalities, or contraband ...

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