Appellate challenges to trial court rulings on admissibility of evidence in criminal cases, including questions of whether a particular search and seizure was reasonable, do not often result in reversals. Appellate courts must rely on a trial court’s findings of fact and determine whether the trial court’s application of law to those facts was reversible error. The recent case of of State v. Mejia, E2010-00745-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 7-27- 2011) did result in the reversal of the trial court ruling and dismissal of charges against the Defendant in that case.
The Defendant was convicted of simple possession of cocaine. The evidence was obtained when police officers responded to a disturbance at a bar and searched the Defendant, who was present outside the bar. The Defendant was apparently arguing with a woman about car keys and was agitated. There was also a crowd which had gathered outside, causing the police officers some concern. A police officer informed the Defendant he was going to pat him down for weapons. The pat down revealed a pill bottle which contained cocaine.
The officer who patted down the Defendant testified that he had interacted with the Defendant on a number of occasions before and that the Defendant had always been cooperative and compliant. The officer had not known the Defendant to carry weapons. The officer believed the Defendant was still on probation from a prior drug case.
The Defense challenged the search in the trial court, arguing that there was no reasonable suspicion to justify the pat down. The trial court found the search to be reasonable because the Defendant was involved in a domestic dispute and the situation was volatile. The Defendant, charged with a felony drug offense, was subsequently convicted of a misdemeanor after a bench trial. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the Defense that the search was unreasonable and the evidence should be excluded and conviction dismissed.
Though the Defendant was agitated and arguing with a woman outside a bar (and the dispute resulted in a crowd and a call to the police), the Court of Criminal Appeals found the situation did not yet justify a check to discover whether the Defendant was armed. In arriving at that conclusion, the Court found it significant that the Defendant was known to the officers and had not been known to be violent or to carry weapons in the past. It is unclear from the ruling how critical that fact was to the outcome. If the Defendant had been previously known to possess and/or carry weapons, this outcome may have been different. What if the responding officers knew nothing about him at all?
For more information on questions of search and seizure, contact Hindman & Associates.