State v. Jennings (A21A1355, A21A1396) was decided on February 8, 2022, and involved cross appeals by the Defendant and the State.
Jennings was charged with first degree vehicular homicide, hit and run, and other charges. The case began with the death of a pedestrian in Dawson County, hit by a vehicle. At the scene was a passenger-side mirror believed to have come from the vehicle that struck and killed the person. The mirror was identified as coming from a black 2009/2010 Ford Escape, Mercury Mariner or Mazda Tribute. That list of vehicles was matched against prior law enforcement contacts with such vehicles and produced a list of 17 vehicles. An investigator traveled to the location listed for a 2009 Ford Escape on the list. He arrived at a residence in a heavily wooded area on a gravel driveway. As he neared the home on the driveway, he observed the back end of the Ford Escape sticking out to the left of the house. He proceeded past the front of the house and parked behind the Ford Escape. In doing so, he observed that the Escape was missing its passenger side mirror.
The officer was there to do a knock-and-talk. That means he was going to knock on the front door and try to talk to whomever answered about the subject of his investigation. In doing so, a law enforcement officer is limited to the approach to a house of a visitor: park and go the normal approach to the front door.
Having observed the lack of a passenger side mirror, the investigator radioed for assistance. About that time, Jennings' husband came outside to inquire about the officer's presence. The officer asked about the damage to the Ford. The husband said his wife hit a deer on the road where the pedestrian fatality had occurred. The investigator told him to call his wife and have her return home to answer some questions. The husband and the officer walked to the vehicle. When Jennings arrived, she answered the investigator that she thought she hit a deer on Dawson Forest Road.. Around this time, seven additional officers arrived on the scene and secured and seized the vehicle. Two days after the vehicle was towed, law enforcement secured a search warrant.
Motion to Suppress Vehicle Evidence
The defense challenged the seizure of the vehicle and evidence relating to it and the statements that Jennings made to the investigator after she returned home when the vehicle was seized.
With regard to the vehicle seizure, the trial court ruled that the investigator entered the property lawfully to conduct a knock-and-talk, but that he exceeded that authority when he drove further up the driveway than necessary in order to observe the suspect vehicle. The State appealed that ruling.
Without consent, a search warrant or exigent circumstances, the officer was not authorized to go beyond the area necessary to access the front door of the house. The investigator never asked for or received consent. There was no search warrant., until two days later. There were no exigent circumstances. Because the officer was not in an area where he had a lawful right to be, the vehicle search and seizure was in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
There is a remaining issue that was remanded, sent back, to the trial court that was not previously ruled on. The State attempted to argue that after Jennings' statements and arrest, the officers ahd probable cause to seize any instrumentalities of the alleged crime.
Motion to Suppress Statements
The defense argued that the statements made by Jennings should be excluded from evidence because (1) they were derivative of the illegal search and seizure and (2) the statements were made while in custody and without a Miranda warning. The trial court denied the motion to suppress the statements.
When a search is ruled illegal, evidence that flows from that illegal search is considered "fruit of the poisonous tree" and usually cannot be used. The defense argues that the statements flowed from the illegal search by the investigator. The trial court did not explicitly address this argument in its denial. So, the Court of Appeals punted that issue back to the trial court for a clearer order on that point.
Miranda protections kick in when a person is in custody which means that they are formally arrested or are restrained to the degree associated with a formal arrest. Many law enforcement interactions with arrestees occur without Miranda warnings ever being given.
The court looked to the facts shown by the record: Jennings was outside of her house on her own property, was not handcuffed, had not been threatened by law enforcement and was not otherwise restrained. A reasonable person would not view this as the same as a formal arrest, so the Court of Appeals upheld that part of the trial court's ruling.
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