MORRIS (JEFFEREY CHARLES) VS. COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKYAnnotate this Case
RENDERED: AUGUST 15, 2008; 2:00 P.M.
NOT TO BE PUBLISHED
SUPREME COURT ORDERED OPINION NOT PUBLISHED:
FEBRUARY 11, 2009
(FILE NO. 2008-SC-0668-D)
Commonwealth of Kentucky
Court of Appeals
JEFFEREY CHARLES MORRIS
APPEAL FROM FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT
HONORABLE PAMELA R. GOODWINE, JUDGE
ACTION NO. 06-CR-01183
COMMONWEALTH OF KENTUCKY
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BEFORE: COMBS, CHIEF JUDGE; DIXON AND LAMBERT, JUDGES.
LAMBERT, JUDGE: Jefferey Morris appeals from a conditional guilty plea to
trafficking in a controlled substance, first degree, arguing that the trial court erred
in denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained through an alleged illegal
search and seizure of his person. After carefully reviewing the record, we affirm
the judgment of the Fayette Circuit Court.
On July 15, 2006, at approximately 5:30 a.m., Lexington Police
Officers Franz Wolfe and Daniel Burnett observed a silver pick-up truck stopped
in the middle of the road in a “high crime area.” They watched as Theatrice
Wortham, a well-known drug offender and participant in the trafficking of
narcotics, approached the truck. As the officers approached the truck in their
marked car, they observed a group of approximately ten individuals concealed
behind a nearby maroon conversion van. Officer Wolfe testified that this type of
activity that early in the morning was highly suspicious, especially when coupled
with the presence of a known drug trafficker.
After observing the large group of individuals and Wortham standing
at the pick-up truck, the officers exited their vehicle for further investigation. As
the officers approached, the individuals behind the van began to disperse, walking
away in different directions from the officers. Officer Wolfe opined that this led
him to believe that illegal activity was taking place.
The individuals were requested to stop and return to the scene to
speak with the officers. Jefferey Morris, however, ignored the request and walked
briskly away from the scene. Morris eventually acknowledged the officers’
request after about one block and returned to the scene. When Morris identified
himself to the officers, the officers ran a warrant check and found that he had a
valid warrant out for his arrest. Morris was subsequently arrested and placed in a
patrol car. Officers then noticed Morris making furtive movements in the patrol
car, and he was searched again. As a result of the search, officers found what was
later confirmed to be cocaine.
On August 29, 2006, Morris was indicted by a Fayette County Grand
Jury for trafficking in a controlled substance, first degree. Morris then moved to
suppress the evidence collected during the stop by Officers Wolfe and Burnett,
arguing that they violated his Fourth Amendment rights because they had no
articulable reasonable suspicion to believe he was engaged in illegal activity.
The Fayette Circuit Court held a suppression hearing on November 7,
2006, where Officers Wolfe and Burnett testified as the only witnesses. After a
thorough hearing, the trial court found that the officers did possess reasonable,
articulable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop of Morris, and that the search
was a valid incident to a lawful arrest in light of the valid arrest warrant.
Additionally, the trial court referenced Hardy v. Commonwealth, 149 S.W.3d 433
(Ky.App. 2004), where this Court held that a lawful arrest pursuant to an
outstanding warrant constitutes an intervening circumstance sufficient to dissipate
any taint caused by an illegal stop. The court suggested that, in light of Hardy,
even if Officers Wolfe and Burnett did not possess reasonable suspicion to stop
Morris, his valid arrest warrant could have provided an intervening circumstance
sufficient to dissipate any taint caused by the alleged illegal stop.
On May 29, 2007, Morris entered a conditional guilty plea to
trafficking in a controlled substance, first degree. The Fayette Circuit Court
sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment, probated for five years. Morris now
appeals the denial of his motion to suppress, which was properly preserved in his
conditional guilty plea.
It is well-settled in this Commonwealth that after a hearing on a
defendant’s suppression motion, the trial court’s findings are deemed to be
conclusive if supported by substantial evidence. See, e.g., Talbott v.
Commonwealth, 968 S.W.2d 76 (Ky. 1998); Canler v. Commonwealth, 870
S.W.2d 219 (Ky. 1994), citing Harper v. Commonwealth, 694 S.W.2d 665 (Ky.
1985) and Crawford v. Commonwealth, 824 S.W.2d 847 (Ky. 1992). Substantial
evidence means “[e]vidence that a reasonable mind would accept as adequate to
support a conclusion” and evidence that, when “taken alone or in the light of all the
evidence, . . . has sufficient probative value to induce conviction in the minds of
reasonable men.” See Moore v. Asente, 110 S.W.3d 336, 354 (Ky. 2003). Finally,
we must conduct a de novo review of the trial court's application of the law to
those facts to determine whether its decision is correct as a matter of law. See
Commonwealth v. Neal, 84 S.W.3d 920, 923 (Ky.App. 2002). There is no dispute
as to the findings of fact in this case; thus they are conclusive. We turn now to the
application of law to the facts.
Morris contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion to
suppress based on its finding that the officers had a reasonable, articulable
suspicion of criminal activity. He specifically argues that the officers did not have
a reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop him, and, that therefore, his detainment
constituted an illegal search and seizure, thereby making the cocaine seized fruit of
the poisonous tree and inadmissible. We disagree.
In an investigative stop, such as in this case, police must have a
reasonable suspicion grounded in specific and articulable facts that criminal
activity is afoot. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1884-85, 20
L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). Reasonable suspicion is an objective standard to be applied in
a commonsense manner based on the totality of the circumstances. Baltimore v.
Commonwealth, 119 S.W.3d 532, 539 (Ky.App. 2003).
In determining the totality of the circumstances, a
reviewing court should not view the factors relied upon
by the police officer(s) to create reasonable suspicion in
isolation but must consider all of the officer(s’)
observations and give due regard to inferences and
deductions drawn by them from their experience and
Id., citing United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273-74, 122 S.Ct. 744, 750-51,
151 L.Ed.2d 740 (2002); United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 418, 101 S.Ct. 690,
66 L.Ed.2d 621 (1981); McCurdy v. Montgomery County, 240 F.3d 512, 517 (6th
Cir. 2001). If we find there was reasonable suspicion, then we must determine
whether the degree of intrusion was reasonably related in scope to the justification
for the stop. See United States v. Martin, 289 F.3d 392, 397 (6th Cir. 2002)(citing
United States v. Garza, 10 F.3d 1241, 1245 (6th Cir. 1993)); United States v. Jones,
269 F.3d 919, 924 (8th Cir. 2001).
The testimony of both officers reflects the grounds for their
reasonable suspicion. First, they initially witnessed a known drug trafficker
approach a stopped vehicle in the middle of the road in the dark hours of morning
in a high crime area. As they approached the stopped vehicle, it pulled away, but
they simultaneously noticed a group of individuals huddled behind a nearby
conversion van. Furthermore, the known drug trafficker approached said group of
individuals as the officers got out of their vehicle. Finally, the individuals not only
dispersed when the officers began to approach them, but they also intentionally
dispersed in different directions from one another at a brisk pace.
Although none of these factors alone would create a reasonable
suspicion, when considered in light of the totality of the circumstances and through
the experience and training of the officers, we find that the trial court correctly
found that the officers had reasonable suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop of
Morris. Moreover, the warrant check was well within the scope of the stop, and
the search in the vehicle was permissible as it was subsequent to a valid arrest.
Therefore, we find no error in the court’s determination that the officers had an
articulable, reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot nor in its
subsequent denial of Morris’ motion to suppress.
Alternatively, however, we find that had the officers not had a
reasonable suspicion to stop Morris, the existence of the valid warrant for his arrest
would have removed the taint caused by any unlawful detainment. See Hardy v.
Commonwealth, 149 S.W.3d 433, 436 (Ky.App. 2004). In Birch v.
Commonwealth, 203 S.W.3d 156 (Ky.App. 2006), we applied this reasoning to
facts analogous to the instant case.
In Birch, the defendant was on foot and entered an apartment
breezeway where officers were talking to two individuals to ascertain why they
were at the apartment. The officers testified that the area was a high crime area
known for drug trafficking. One of the individuals being questioned stated that she
was there to meet Birch. Birch walked away from the officers but returned when
one of them hailed him down. A check for warrants revealed that a valid arrest
warrant was active for Birch. Officers placed Birch under arrest and found crack
cocaine in his hand.
This Court held that “a valid arrest may constitute an intervening
event that cures the taint of an illegal detention sufficient to rebut the application of
the exclusionary rule to evidence recovered in a search incident to an arrest.” See
Id. at 159, citing Baltimore, 119 S.W.3d at 541, n. 37. Kentucky is not alone in
adopting this rule. In fact, several other courts have also adopted the rule that a
valid arrest, such as one incident to a valid, outstanding warrant, is a sufficiently
independent, untainted justification for the arrest and concomitant search. See,
e.g., McBath v. State, 108 P.3d 241, 246 (Alaska Ct.App. 2005) (collecting and
citing cases on point from Illinois, Kansas, Texas, Indiana, etc.). Therefore, we
find that even if the stop in the instant case had been without reasonable suspicion,
the trial court was correct in its theory that the existence of the valid arrest warrant
would have cured any taint.
For the reasons set forth herein, we affirm the judgment of the Fayette
BRIEF FOR APPELLANT:
BRIEF FOR APPELLEE:
Linda Roberts Horsman
Assistant Public Advocate
Department of Public Advocacy
Assistant Attorney General