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State v. Abrams

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

April 27, 2018

State of Alabama
v.
Jarod Abrams

          Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court (CC-17-12)

          JOINER, JUDGE.

         The State of Alabama appeals a pretrial order of the Montgomery Circuit Court suppressing evidence that, the State says, demonstrates Jarod Abrams's guilt of the crimes of first-degree possession of marijuana, see § 13A-12-213, Ala. Code 1975, obscuring a vehicle-identification number, see § 13A-8-22, Ala. Code 1975, and second-degree receiving of stolen property, see § 13A-8-18, Ala. Code 1975.

         Statement of Facts and Procedural History

         In March 2015, Officer Brandon Truss of the Montgomery Police Department was on patrol when he noticed a white Ford Crown Victoria automobile traveling in front of his patrol car. Although the vehicle was not violating any traffic laws, Officer Truss decided to "run the tag" by entering the license-plate characters into a computer database. According to Officer Truss, he routinely ran tags on vehicles as an investigatory tool because, he said, doing so can help uncover expired tags, switched tags, and stolen vehicles.

         After running the tag on the white Ford Crown Victoria, Officer Truss learned that the tag on the vehicle was actually registered to a stolen vehicle.[1] As a result, Officer Truss pulled the vehicle over. The driver, later identified as Jarod Abrams, was the only occupant in the vehicle. As Officer Truss approached the driver's side of the vehicle, he noticed the strong odor of marijuana emanating from the rear. Officer J.E. Albrecht, who assisted Officer Truss with the traffic stop, later confirmed that the odor was marijuana.

         When asked, Abrams provided a non-driver's identification card and registration information to Officer Truss. According to Officer Truss, the registration information matched the license plate displayed on the white Ford Crown Victoria but both the registration information and the license plate belonged to a different vehicle. When Officer Truss and Officer Albrecht checked the plate on the dashboard where the vehicle identification number ("VIN") was displayed, they noticed that another VIN plate appeared to have been glued on top of the original. They determined that that glued-on VIN plate belonged to another vehicle.[2] Additionally, Officer Albrecht testified that an examination of the secondary VIN plate located on the inside door frame of the vehicle revealed that that plate had been scratched off and covered up. Based on this information, Officer Truss and Officer Albrecht arrested Abrams. Because of the marijuana odor emanating from Abrams's vehicle, they then searched the vehicle where they found marijuana in the trunk packaged into separate bags.

         In January 2017, the Montgomery County grand jury indicted Abrams for first-degree possession of marijuana, see § 13A-12-213, Ala. Code 1975, obscuring a vehicle-identification number, see § 13A-8-22, Ala. Code 1975, and second-degree receiving of stolen property, see § 13A-8-18, Ala. Code 1975. On Friday, September 22, 2017, Abrams filed a motion to suppress any substances "and all other evidence of an incriminating nature found by law enforcement personnel in the defendant's vehicle or in the alleged actual or constructive possession of [Abrams]." (C. 52-57.) On September 25, 2017, before the State could file a response to Abrams's motion, the circuit court held a suppression hearing.

         At the conclusion of that hearing, the circuit court took Abrams's motion under advisement. The Court granted the motion the next day. In its two-sentence written order granting Abrams's motion, the circuit court also sua sponte dismissed the case against Abrams, even though such relief had not been requested in Abrams's motion to suppress. Thereafter, the State timely filed its notice of appeal.

         Discussion

         The State argues that the circuit court erred when it granted Abrams's motion to suppress evidence seized by Officers Truss and Albrecht when they pulled Abrams over and searched his vehicle. (State's brief, pp. 10-20.) Specifically, the State argues first that Abrams did not have a privacy interest in the license plate on the vehicle he was driving and that, therefore, Officer Truss's decision to "run" his plate number did not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. (State's brief, pp. 10-13.) The State further argues that, when Officer Truss's check of Abrams's license plate revealed that the plate belonged to a vehicle that had previously been reported stolen, Officer Truss then had sufficient reasonable suspicion to stop Abrams. (State's brief, pp. 13-20.) Finally, the State argues that any evidence obtained by the State after stopping Abrams's vehicle--specifically, the VIN plate and the marijuana--falls within the "plain view" and "plain smell" exceptions to the warrant requirement and, thus, did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Id. We agree with the State.

         Initially, we note that the only evidence presented at the suppression hearing was the testimony of Officer Truss and Officer Albrecht. That evidence was undisputed. Regarding the proper standard of review to be applied in this case, this Court has held:

"In reviewing decisions of a trial court concerning a suppression of evidence, we apply a de novo standard of review when the evidence is not in dispute. State v. Hill, 690 So.2d 1201, 1203 (Ala. 1996). Because the evidence is undisputed, and the only quarrel is with the application of the law to the facts, we will review the evidence de novo, 'indulging no presumption in favor of the trial court's application of the law to those facts.' Stiles v. Brown, 380 So.2d 792, 794 (Ala. 1980) (citations omitted)."

State v. Banks, 734 So.2d 371, 372 (Ala.Crim.App.1999). With these principles in mind, we address the ...


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