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State v. Cheatwood

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

July 13, 2018

State of Alabama
v.
Michael Jerome Cheatwood

          Appeal from Blount Circuit Court (CC-16-119)

          KELLUM, JUDGE.

         Michael Jerome Cheatwood was arrested and charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance, see § 13A-12-212(a)(1), Ala. Code 1975, and possession of drug paraphernalia, see § 13A-12-260, Ala. Code 1975. Cheatwood filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence seized as a result of a Terry[1] frisk, namely, a pill bottle containing methamphetamine. Following an evidentiary hearing, the circuit court granted Cheatwood's motion to suppress. Pursuant to Rule 15.7, Ala. R. Crim. P., the State appeals the circuit court's ruling.

         The evidence presented at the suppression hearing established the following: On August 21, 2014, Deputy Chris McGahee with the Blount County Sheriff's Department received a request for a welfare check at the Dollar General discount store in Warrior, Alabama. Deputy McGahee found Cheatwood "passed out" in his vehicle in the parking lot outside the store. (R. 4.) Deputy McGahee approached Cheatwood and spoke to him from outside the vehicle. He testified that Cheatwood smelled of alcohol and that he had an open can of alcohol in the center console of his car. Deputy McGahee asked Cheatwood if he had "been drinking" and Cheatwood responded that he had. (R. 4.) After Cheatwood admitted he had consumed alcohol, Deputy McGahee initiated an investigation to determine whether Cheatwood was "under the influence." (R. 5.) Deputy McGahee ordered Cheatwood out of his vehicle and conducted a patdown search "for officer safety." (R. 5.) Cheatwood raised his shirt, revealing a pocketknife. Deputy McGahee removed the pocketknife and noticed an unlabeled pill bottle protruding from Cheatwood's back pocket. Deputy McGahee asked about the bottle and Cheatwood told him that it contained crushed up caffeine pills. When Deputy McGahee ordered him to hand over the bottle, Cheatwood placed the bottle behind his back and passed it from hand to hand. Deputy McGahee eventually seized the bottle; a subsequent field test indicated that the bottle contained methamphetamine. Deputy McGahee testified that he had 18 years of law-enforcement experience at the time of the suppression hearing. According to Deputy McGahee, people often keep contraband in pill bottles.

         Following Deputy McGahee's testimony, the circuit court granted Cheatwood's motion to suppress evidence of the methamphetamine. The court stated:

"At this time, it is going to be the Court's order that based upon the testimony -- my understanding of the Terry v. Ohio[, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), ] and that analysis, that the right to engage an individual having probable cause for arrest is separate and distinct from the right to conduct a frisk or pat-down. It is my understanding that it is whether there is reason to believe that the officer did believe he was armed and a dangerous individual regardless of whether he has probable cause to make an arrest or charge an offense, that a frisk comes in to play. The officer must have particular facts in which he believes or could infer that the individual is armed and dangerous. I do not find from the testimony of the officer that he gave any testimony that would support a reasonable belief that Mr. Cheatwood was armed and dangerous. It is my understanding that the contraband was noted or discovered as a result of the frisk. Therefore, based on the testimony, I'm going to suppress the evidence."

(R. 12-13.)

         On appeal, the State contends that the circuit court erred by granting Cheatwood's motion to suppress. Specifically, the State argues that, based on the totality of the circumstances, Deputy McGahee had reasonable suspicion of illegal conduct to perform a "stop and frisk" pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). Cheatwood argues that the circuit court's ruling should be affirmed on the basis that the patdown was not supported by reasonable suspicion and argues further that, even if it was, the circuit court's ruling is due to be affirmed on the alternative ground that the patdown "exceeded the narrowly drawn scope of a Terry search." (Cheatwood's brief, p. 10.); see Washington v. State, 922 So.2d 145, 169 n.9 (Ala.Crim.App.2005) ("If a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress is correct for any reason, it will be affirmed by this Court.").

         In State v. Landrum, 18 So.3d 424 (Ala.Crim.App.2009), this Court explained:

"'This Court reviews de novo a circuit court's decision on a motion to suppress evidence when the facts are not in dispute. See State v. Hill, 690 So.2d 1201, 1203 (Ala. 1996); State v. Otwell, 733 So.2d 950, 952 (Ala.Crim.App.1999).' State v. Skaggs, 903 So.2d 180, 181 (Ala.Crim.App.2004). In State v. Hill, 690 So.2d 1201 (Ala. 1996), the trial court granted a motion to suppress following a hearing at which it heard only the testimony of one police officer. Regarding the applicable standard of review, the Alabama Supreme Court stated, in pertinent part, as follows:
"'"Where the evidence before the trial court was undisputed the ore tenus rule is inapplicable, and the Supreme Court will sit in judgment on 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). The trial judge's ruling in this case was based upon his interpretation of the term "reasonable suspicion" as applied to an undisputed set of facts; the proper interpretation is a question of law.'

"State v. Hill, 690 So.2d at 1203-04." State v. Landrum, 18 So.3d at 426. Here, Deputy McGahee was the sole witness to testify at the suppression hearing, and his testimony was undisputed. Therefore, the only issue before this Court is whether the circuit court correctly applied the law to the facts set forth in Deputy McGahee's testimony, and we afford no presumption in favor of the circuit court's ruling.

"'"Under Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), law enforcement officers may conduct investigatory stops of persons or vehicles if they have a 'reasonable suspicion that criminal activity has occurred, is occurring, or is about to occur...'"' Davis, 7 So.3d at 470, quoting Wilsher v. State, 611 So.2d 1175, 1179-80 (Ala.Crim.App.1992) (internal citations omitted). When an officer stops a suspect pursuant to Terry, the officer '"'"is entitled for the protection of himself and others in the area to conduct a carefully limited search of the outer clothing of such persons in an attempt to discover weapons which might be used to assault him." [Terry, ] 392 U.S. at 30, 88 S.Ct. 1868.'"' Smith v. State, 884 So.2d 3, 9 (Ala.Crim.App.2003), quoting Riddlesprigger v. State, 803 So.2d 579, 582 (Ala.Crim.App.2001). In State v. Hails, 814 So.2d 980 (Ala.Crim.App.2000), this Court explained the standards by which any Terry search would be judged:
"'"Police may conduct a patdown search without a warrant if, under the totality of the circumstances, the officer has an articulable, reasonable suspicion that a person is involved in criminal activity and that he is armed. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). The reasonableness of the search is measured objectively. If a reasonably prudent person would believe that his safety, or the safety of others, is endangered, he ...

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