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[U] Commonwealth v. Hills

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 20, 2014



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence March 27, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas of Adams County Criminal Division at No.: CP-01-CR-0000420-2012




Appellant, Michael John Hills, appeals from the judgment of sentence after conviction of three counts of DUI-controlled substance (marijuana) and one count of speeding, at a bench trial on stipulated facts. The conviction followed denial of most of Appellant's motion to suppress. Appellant argues that the police stop of his vehicle, after the initial detention for speeding, was illegal, and the evidence on which he was convicted should have been suppressed. [1] We affirm.

The trial court made extensive findings of fact as part of its opinion on the motion to suppress. (See Opinion on Defendant's' Motion for Suppression of Evidence, 11/05/12, at 1-4). The parties agreed to the facts of the case at the bench trial. (See N.T. Trial, 2/11/13, at 7).

Most pertinent to our review, Appellant was stopped for speeding on January 14, 2012, on Jacks Mountain Road, Carroll Valley Borough, in Adams County, by Police Chief Richard L. Hileman, II, after Patrol Officer Dustin Kirk Miller timed him driving fifty-four miles per hour in a zone with a forty miles per hour posted speed limit.

Chief Hileman testified at the suppression hearing that when Appellant opened the driver's side window he detected the very strong odor of recently applied or opened cologne; he noted that Appellant's speech was lethargic and the pupils of his eyes were constricted. (See N.T. Suppression Hearing, 9/24/12, at 8-10). Appellant gave him his personal health insurance card instead of proof of auto insurance. (See id. at 8).

Chief Hileman further testified that based on his training and experience he took these conditions as possible indications of intoxication, noting that cologne was frequently used to mask the odor of marijuana. He asked Appellant to step outside of the car to perform field sobriety tests. Appellant had some difficulty following the instructions and accomplishing the tests. Chief Hileman testified that he was aware that difficulty in performing field sobriety tests could be an indicator of either drug or alcohol intoxication. (See id. at 13).

While Chief Hileman went back to his vehicle to run a check on Appellant's license, Officer Miller approached Appellant, told him that "now is the time to be truthful" and asked him again if he had been smoking marijuana. (Id. at 30, 34; see also Trial Court Opinion, 11/05/12, at 3). Appellant admitted that he had smoked marijuana that morning. Miller told Hileman, and Appellant repeated the admission to Hileman. Chief Hileman asked him if there was anything else on his person or in the car that he needed to be concerned about. Appellant replied that he had a partial case of beer in the trunk. The police seized several unopened bottles of beer

Based on his interaction with Appellant, Chief Hileman decided that Appellant was under the influence of marijuana to a degree which rendered him incapable of safe driving, arrested him, and transported him to Gettysburg Hospital where blood tests confirmed the presence of Delta-9 THC, an active ingredient of marijuana, and Delta-9 Carboxy THC, an inactive metabolite of marijuana in his system. (See N.T. Trial, at 6).

Appellant filed an omnibus motion to suppress, which the trial court granted as to the unopened bottles of beer but denied in all other respects. After the stipulated bench trial, the court convicted Appellant of the offenses previously noted, and on March 27, 2013 sentenced him to a term of twenty-four months in the intermediate punishment program (IPP).[2] This timely appeal followed.[3]

On appeal, Appellant presents two overlapping multi-issue questions for our review, framed as prayers for relief:

Prayer I

Did the Court of Common Pleas of Adams County through Suppression of Evidence Hearing of 9/24/12 and its Opinion of 11/5/12 and Judgment of Sentence 3/27/13 violate [Appellant's] Right To Due Process, Right Against Self-Incrimination and Right Against Illegal Search and Seizure respectively protected by 5th, 4th and 14th Amendments of U.S. Constitution and Act I, Sections 9 and 8 of Pa. Constitution[?]
The Defense alleges that the Court of Common Pleas of Adams County violated the above rights by its failure to rule that [Appellant] was placed in an illegal investigation auto stop and (i.e. illegal investigative detention) resulting in an illegal arrest and prosecution for DUI. The failure to rule such auto stop illegal allowed the Commonwealth to present the derivative evidence to be presented in their case in chief at the stipulated bench trial of 9/24/12 and conviction of [Appellant] for DUI and Speeding in Judgment of Sentence of 3/27/13.
Therefore Defense prays Superior Court to rule such arrest illegal and remand Judgment of Sentence.

Prayer II

In lieu of granting of Prayer I, the Defense alleges that the Suppression Court failure to order that [Appellant] was held in illegal custodial detention and caused by the action of law enforcement, to make unmirandized admission of guilt to question posed to him by Law Enforcement seeking his admission to commission of the crime they were investigating. Therefore it is prayed Court will reverse Judgment of Sentence and remand to protect [Appellant's] right against self-incrimination protected by 5th and 14th Amendment, U.S. Constitution and Act I, Section 9 of Pa. Constitution.
Therefore did the Court of Common Pleas fail to order and [sic] illegal arrest and order suppression of all evidence derivative of same under Commonwealth v Carter, 655A(2) 492 (Pas. 1995)?
Defense believes it did so! [sic]
Therefore did the Court of Common Pleas fail to rule that [Appellant's] right against self-incrimination violated by the custodial coerced unmirandized admissions of [Appellant] to directed questions of guilt presented to [Appellant] by Police?
Defense believes it did so! [sic]

(Appellant's Brief, at 5-6).

Our standard of review for a challenge to the denial of suppression is well-settled.

In reviewing a ruling on a suppression motion, our standard of review is whether the factual findings and the legal conclusions drawn therefrom are supported by the evidence. Commonwealth v. Wholaver, 605 Pa. 325, 347, 989 A.2d 883, 896 (2010). Further, the reviewing court may consider only the Commonwealth's evidence and so much of the evidence for the defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the [ ] entire record. Commonwealth v. Russo, 594 Pa. 119, 126, 934 A.2d 1199, 1203 (Pa.2007).

Commonwealth v. Lagenella, 2013 WL 6823057, at *3 (Pa. 2013). "With respect to factual findings, we are mindful that it is the sole province of the suppression court to weigh the credibility of the witnesses. Further, the suppression court judge is entitled to believe all, part or none of the evidence presented." Commonwealth v. Swartz, 787 A.2d 1021, 1023 (Pa. Super. 2001) (en banc) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

In his first question, Appellant claims that the stop of his vehicle was illegal. (See Appellant's Brief, at 5). In his second question, he argues that the illegal stop resulted in an illegal arrest. (See id. at 6, 16). He further argues that the trial court's error in the failure to grant suppression resulted in his conviction. We disagree.

Preliminarily, we note that Appellant's brief contains one undifferentiated argument in support of the two multi-issue questions raised. (See id. at 19-24). Appellant's argument thus fails to comply with Pa.R.A.P. 2119(a):

General rule. The argument shall be divided into as many parts as there are questions to be argued; and shall have at the head of each part in distinctive type or in type distinctively displayed the particular point treated therein, followed by such discussion and citation of authorities as are deemed pertinent.

Pa.R.A.P. 2119(a).

Appellant also fails to develop an argument in support of his numerous claims of purported constitutional violations, or to present pertinent authority in support of his various claims, relying instead on an often unfocussed and meandering narration of his version of the facts. (See Appellant's Brief, at 19-24). Accordingly, both of Appellant's claims are waived. See Pa.R.A.P. 2119(a), (b).

Moreover, none of the claims would merit relief. Appellant attempts to re-cast the facts in a light more favorable to him, or to cast doubt on the facts presented, e.g., how his eyes looked, or whether he was able to perform the field sobriety tests satisfactorily. (See Appellant's Brief, at 8-9, 17, 20-21). Based on these challenges to the evidence of record, Appellant reaches the conclusion that the police lacked reasonable suspicion. (See id. at 9, 17, 24).

This approach ignores our standard of review, under which we "may consider only the Commonwealth's evidence and so much of the evidence for the defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the [ ] entire record." Lagenella, supra at *3 (citation omitted).

Additionally, "[w]ith respect to factual findings, we are mindful that it is the sole province of the suppression court to weigh the credibility of the witnesses. Further, the suppression court judge is entitled to believe all, part or none of the evidence presented." Swartz, supra at 1023. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).[4] We decline Appellant's implicit invitation to re-weigh the evidence.

Appellant's citation to authority offers no basis for a different conclusion. To the contrary, his citations are often materially if not fatally defective, (see Appellant's Brief, at 23: "Commonwealth v. Lubenni, A(3) Pa. 2011" [no such case found]); mis-cited (see, e.g., Appellant's Brief, at 17, 20, 23: Commonwealth v. Santiago, 980A(2) 689 [correct cite: Commonwealth v. Santiago, 980 A.2d 659 (Pa. Super. 2009), appeal denied, 991 A.2d 312 (Pa. 2010), cert. denied, 131 S.Ct. 155 (2010);[5] or overruled (see Appellant's Brief, at 23: Commonwealth v. Griffith, 985 A.2d 230, 237 (Pa. Super. 2009) [miscaptioned in brief as "Griffin"]). The panel decision in Griffith cited by Appellant was reversed in a unanimous Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion. See Commonwealth v. Griffith, 32 A.3d 1231, 1240-41 (Pa. 2011).

Notably, Appellant mischaracterizes the holding in Santiago, supra as supportive of his arguments. (See Appellant's Brief, at 20, 23). To the contrary, Santiago reaches an opposite conclusion. See Santiago, supra at 666 (concluding that physical evidence obtained subsequent to statement given to police was not fruit of poisonous tree; consequently, trial court did not err in permitting admission of physical evidence obtained as result of appellant's voluntary statement).

In sum, Appellant fails to prove that under the stipulated facts, the investigative detention was illegal, or that the evidence produced should have been suppressed. See Commonwealth v. Chase, 960 A.2d 108, 115 n.5 (Pa. 2008):

Of course, if there is a legitimate stop for a traffic violation (based on probable cause), additional suspicion may arise before the initial stop's purpose has been fulfilled; then, detention may be permissible to investigate the new suspicions. See [U.S. v.] Lopez-Moreno[, 420 F.3d 420 (C.A. 5 (La.) 2005)], at 431 (citations omitted) (initial stop for traffic violations; investigatory stop lawfully continued as there was evidence driver was transporting illegal aliens); see also [U.S. v.] Chhien[, 266 F.3d 1, 3 (C.A. 1 (N.H.) 2001)], at 7–8 (initial stop for traffic violations; after consensual pat-down revealed large amount of cash, investigatory stop lawfully continued); [U.S. v.] Hassan El, [5 F.3d 726 (C.A.4 (Md.), 1993)] at 728, 731 (initial stop for running stop sign; after witnessing passenger act nervous with bulge in pants, officer lawfully felt bulge and found gun).

Id. at 115 n.5.

In particular, Appellant's argument that his admission of marijuana use should have been suppressed because he did not receive Miranda[6] warnings is without merit. The trial court properly determined that in the totality of circumstances Appellant was subject to an investigative detention, not a custodial interrogation. (See Trial Ct. Op., at 9). Our case law has long recognized that ordinary traffic stops generally do not, without more, constitute custodial detention equivalent to arrest, and therefore Miranda warnings are not required. Nor are statements so made subject to suppression for lack of Miranda warnings. See Commonwealth v. Mannion, 725 A.2d 196 (Pa. Super. 1999):

[P]olice detentions in Pennsylvania become custodial when, under the totality of the circumstances, the conditions and/or duration of the detention become so coercive as to constitute the functional equivalent of arrest. Thus, a reviewing court is to consider the particular facts of each case in order to determine whether a detention is custodial.
The usual traffic stop constitutes an investigative rather than a custodial detention, unless, under the totality of the circumstances, the conditions and duration of the detention become the functional equivalent of arrest. Since an ordinary traffic stop is typically brief in duration and occurs in public view, such a stop is not custodial for Miranda purposes.

(Id. at 201-02) (citations omitted). See also id. at n.5 (citing cases).

Appellant's arguments are waived. None of them would merit relief.

Judgment of sentence affirmed.

Judgment Entered.

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