While we note that instead of applying a Fourth Amendment analysis to the search of the jacket, the trial court improperly focused on a distinction between “temporarily unattended” and “truly unattended” property, a distinction not found in the law.

 

State v. Carpenter

2023 – Ohio – 2014

Ninth District Appellate Court

Medina County, Ohio

June 20, 2023

 

Who Owned the Jacket with the Drug Paraphernalia?

At the suppression hearing, Wadsworth Police Officer Sipos, a twenty-four-year veteran officer testified that Wadsworth Police had received a call on Friday September 17, 2021, about a disturbance that occurred at a residence involving Mr. Justin Carpenter and his companion, H.C. Several patrol units were looking for the couple when Officer Sipos spotted them outside of a tanning shop, located at 398 Main Street, Wadsworth, Ohio. Officer Sipos discovered that H.C. had an outstanding warrant for her arrest and proceeded to take her into custody. As part of that arrest, Officer Sipos conducted a search of a bag that H.C. had been wearing. During the search of that bag, Officer Sipos located drug paraphernalia. While Officer Sipos was processing that evidence, her colleague, Sgt. Patterson began a frisk of Mr. Carpenter. While that frisk was happening, Officer Sipos went over to the table that H.C. had been seated at when Officer Sipos pulled into the parking lot of the tanning salon. Officer Sipos testified that she began to search a jacket that was on the table to see who it belonged to, because “I wasn’t sure whose it was. Since [H.C.] was sitting there and [Mr. Carpenter] had already come closer to me when I first pulled up, I wasn’t sure if it could have been hers or whose it could have been.”

The South Beach Tan Club, located at 398 Main Street, Wadsworth, Ohio was the location that Officer Sipos and Sgt. Patterson encountered Mr. Justin Carpenter.  The trial judge would later rule that the search of Mr. Carpenter’s jacket was unreasonable based upon no legal precedence.  The Ninth District Appellate Court had a more objectively reasonable view of Officer Sipos’ search.

Trial Court Creates a New Legal Doctrine – Temporarily Unattended

A factual finding upon which the trial court based its decision was that “[A]t no time after Officer Sipos arrived was either [Mr.] Carpenter or [H.C] seated at the table.” Therefore, the trial court found the jacket was “temporarily unattended” as opposed to “truly unattended or lost property.” The trial court relied on this factual finding in granting Mr. Carpenter’s motion to suppress. However, this factual finding is not supported by the evidence in the record. Officer Sipos’ body camera footage shows that when she gets out of her vehicle, [H.C.] remains seated at the table with the jacket, while Mr. Carpenter is walking towards Officer Sipos’ vehicle.

A Peek-a-Boo Wallet

Eventually, H.C. gets up and walks away from the table to approach the officer, but both the body camera shows, and the officer testified that, H.C. had remained seated at the table after the officer’s arrival. Additionally, the trial court stated in its factual findings that “[I]nside the [jacket] pocket, Officer Sipos located [Mr.] Carpenter’s wallet and some drug paraphernalia.” However, the body camera footage shows that in the jacket pocket, Officer Sipos located a mesh wallet, and that items belonging to Mr. Carpenter and the drug paraphernalia were inside that mesh wallet. The body camera footage further shows that it was possible to see through the mesh into the wallet to some degree even prior to the wallet being opened or items being removed from it.

Indicted 

On March 2, 2022, Mr. Carpenter was indicted by a Medina County grand jury on one count of aggravated drug possession in violation of O.R.C. §2925.11(A)(C), a felony of the fifth degree.

Motion to Suppress is Granted by Trial Court 

Mr. Carpenter filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained from what Mr. Carpenter alleged was an illegal search of his jacket. On July 8, 2022, the trial court held a hearing on Mr. Carpenter’s motion. On October 3, 2022, the trial court issued a journal entry granting Mr. Carpenter’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the search of the jacket.

Ninth District Appellate Court Holds the Trial Court’s Holding was Not Supported by Competent, Credible Evidence

While we note that instead of applying a Fourth Amendment analysis to the search of the jacket, the trial court improperly focused on a distinction between “temporarily unattended” and “truly unattended” property, a distinction not found in the law. However, we cannot address the trial court’s application of the law at this time, as the trial court’s factual findings are not supported by competent, credible evidence. Because the evidence does not support the trial court’s factual findings, we must conclude that the trial court erred by granting Mr. Carpenter’s motion to suppress. The State’s sole assignment of error is sustained on that basis.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Carpenter 2023 – Ohio – 2014.

State v. Carpenter 2023 – Ohio – 2014 was issued by the Ninth District Appellate Court on June 20, 2023 and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Lorain, Medina, Summit and Wayne.

Lessons Learned:

  1. The Judicial System Works – Often, we are critical of the judicial system. But this case is a prime example as to when it works.  In this case a trial judge created a new legal doctrine without any judicial precedence.  The Ninth District Appellate Court immediately recognized this wayward judge and overturned the decision.
  2. Not My Jacket Defense – Personal property ownership can often lead to a legal challenge as to who owned the property, whether person provided consent to search or whether law enforcement had probable cause to search the property. In this case, who specifically owned the jacket was ambiguous to the officer(s) and the court.  Because ownership of the jacket was not clear, the Ninth District Appellate Court determined that the search was objectively reasonable.
  3. U.S. Supreme Court had a Similar Finding in 1999 – A case similar to State v. Carpenter, was Wyoming v. Houghton, 526 U.S. 295 (1999), that was issued by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday April 5, 1999. In that case Ms. Sandra Houghton claimed that a pouch inside a purse was not hers. Additionally, she had claimed that Wyoming State Trooper Robert Baldwin did not take time to determine who owned the purse before he searched it based on probable cause that narcotics may be nestled therein.  The U.S. Supreme Court held in pertinent part “Neither Ross nor the historical evidence it relied upon admits a distinction based on ownership … [P]olice officers with probable cause to search a car may inspect passengers’ belongings found in the car that are capable of concealing the object of the search.  The judgement of the Wyoming Supreme Court is reversed.”.  Id at 302.  In the Houghton case the Wyoming Supreme Court, like the Medina Common Pleas Court judge in State v. Carpenter was not permitted to make up any new law.  For more information on the Houghton case see: A Liar, Truthteller and Methamphetamine.
  4. Pre-Sent Arms! Wadsworth Police Officer Sipos who was a twenty-four-year veteran at the time of this stop did exceptionally well to search the jacket and discover Mr. Carpenter’s drug paraphernalia.  Well done Officer Sipos and Sgt. Patterson!

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Robert H. Meader Esq.