Was it a Consensual Encounter or a Terry Stop?

No violation of Ms. Adams’s Fourth Amendment rights has been demonstrated.

 

State v. Adams

2023 – Ohio – 4691

Fifth District Appellate Court

Guernsey County, Ohio

December 21, 2023

Speedway Gas Station is Under Surveillance

This case arose around 10:45 p.m. on Wednesday December 8, 2021, when Detective May and Sergeant Leggett of the Central Ohio Drug Enforcement Task Force were separately monitoring a Speedway gas station in Cambridge, Ohio. The station was located in an area known for drug trafficking and Det. May was undercover, in an unmarked vehicle and plain clothes. Det. May communicated with Sgt. Leggett by cell phone.

This Speedway Gas Station at 2340 East Wheeling Avenue, in Cambridge, Ohio was the subject of narcotics surveillance that resulted in a few arrests and over four hundred grams of methamphetamine.  No rewards card was used but Ms. Adams was sentenced to eighteen to twenty-three and a half years in prison.  Was the initial encounter consensual or a Terry stop?

Det. May observed a black four-door sedan with West Virginia plates parked at a gas pump. He saw a woman identified as Ms. Maggie Adams exit the gas station store and get into the car. He then noticed a passenger later identified as Mr. Deon Christian in the black car. A silver SUV with North Carolina plates was parked on the other side of the gas- pump island; Det. May suspected the SUV was a rental car due to the age and condition. He called Sgt. Leggett and advised him to watch the SUV.

Suspected Drug Transaction

Sgt. Leggett was in a marked police cruiser and uniform, accompanied by canine Hoke. While Det. May and Sgt. Leggett spoke, Det. May observed Mr. Christian get out of Ms. Adams’s car and walk quickly to the silver SUV, which then pulled away. Det. May advised Sgt. Leggett he suspected an illegal narcotics transaction had occurred.

Fail to Signal – Speed and Stopped in the Middle Lane

Sgt. Leggett watched the SUV pass him and caught up to it on the northbound ramp to Interstate 77, where the vehicle took off at a high rate of speed. As the vehicle merged onto 77, Mr. Christian failed to use a turn signal and sped up. Sgt. Leggett traveled at speeds in excess of 90 m.p.h. to keep up. He turned on lights and sirens and traffic- stopped Mr. Christian, who stopped the SUV in the middle of a lane of traffic.

Probable Cause and Consent to Search

Sgt. Leggett approached the SUV and spoke to Mr. Christian and his passenger, identified as Mr. Lee Gray. He first instructed Mr. Christian to pull to the side of the highway because of the vehicle’s dangerous location. Sgt. Leggett smelled a strong odor of marijuana emanating from the vehicle and asked for consent to search. Mr. Christian agreed, and he and Gray exited the SUV before the search. Both men were patted down and found to have large amounts of currency on their persons; Mr. Christian had $2,674 and Gray had $1,457. At that point Sgt. Leggett advised Det. May to call him immediately, suspecting this was a narcotics delivery and the drugs might be at the Speedway location.

Why are you in Cambridge? “to cheat on her husband.”

In the meantime, Deputy Devon Ryan arrived at the Speedway and assisted Det. May in contacting Ms. Adams in the parking lot. Det. May identified himself to Ms. Adams, showed her his badge, and asked what brought her to Cambridge. Ms. Adams responded that she was here “to cheat on her husband.” Det. May asked her about the man he observed jog from her car to the SUV, and asked whether the two were involved in a drug transaction. Ms. Adams said she understood why he might think that. As Det. May spoke to Ms. Adams, Sgt. Leggett called with news of the currency found on the occupants of the SUV. Det. May asked Ms. Adams for consent to search her car and she declined.

Canine Alert and Fear for Her Safety

Sgt. Leggett returned to the Speedway with canine Hoke and performed an open- air sniff around the exterior of Ms. Adams’s vehicle. Hoke very quickly alerted on the vehicle, indicating an odor of narcotics. Sgt. Leggett asked Ms. Adams why canine Hoke would alert on her car and Ms. Adams responded, “I don’t know; I can’t say anything because these people will hurt me.”

Lots of Methamphetamine is Discovered

Det. May and Sgt. Leggett commenced a probable-cause search of Ms. Adams’s vehicle and found a large Ziploc bag of suspected methamphetamine in the center console. They also found additional baggies of suspected methamphetamine, brown powder, two pipes, and white pills in Ms. Adams’s purse. Another bag containing a brown substance was found in the center console. The suspected narcotics were collected, bagged, photographed, weighed, and taken into evidence to be tested.

An Un-Informed Drug Currier

Det. May returned to speak to Ms. Adams in the back of Sgt. Leggett’s patrol car after Mirandizing her. Ms. Adams told Det. May she “never knows” what all the drugs are when she’s involved in deliveries. Ms. Adams said someone puts the drugs in her car and she delivers them to a certain address in Parkersburg. Ms. Adams said she was just trying to make a little money and the guy she was meeting is named Chris.

Chris, Q and Parkersburg

Ms. Adams was arrested and transported to the Guernsey County Jail where Det. May and Detective Carpenter interviewed her again. Ms. Adams admitted she came to Cambridge to meet “Chris” and this was not the first time they met; she knew “Chris” through someone named “Q.” Ms. Adams was supposed to meet Chris to obtain narcotics, then deliver the narcotics to an address in Parkersburg. She would be paid upon delivery and this wasn’t the first time she’s made this trip. Det. May asked Ms. Adams if she “pinches a little off the top,” meaning whether she takes a little of the narcotics for her own personal use, and she said no. She agreed with Det. May that the amount of narcotics found was not for personal use. In Det. May’s estimation, the large amounts would be broken down into smaller amounts for resale.

At one point during the jail interview, Ms. Adams mentioned a “cartel,” which indicated to Det. May that Ms. Adams believed the large amount of narcotics might indicate involvement of a cartel organization. Ms. Adams also asked detectives whether she might be able to “help herself out,” which they took to mean cooperate and provide information in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Chris usually Places the Meth in the Center Console

When asked what happened at the Speedway, Ms. Adams said she went into the station, and when she came out Chris was in her car, as witnessed by Det. May. She got back in her car and didn’t know where he put the drugs, but he “usually” put them in the console. She admitted she paid Chris for the drugs. She also admitted the methamphetamine in her purse is hers and she uses methamphetamine.

Over 462 Grams of Methamphetamine

The substances found in Ms. Adams’s car were tested and determined to be 446.4 grams of methamphetamine in the Ziploc bag, and a grand total of 462.71 grams of methamphetamine including the smaller bags in Ms. Adams’s purse. The other substance found in the console was a combination of two drugs, fentanyl and tramadol, in the amount of 14.141 grams.

Two F-1’s, One F-2, an M-1 and Major Drug Offender Specifications

Ms. Adams was charged by indictment as follows: Count I, aggravated drug trafficking (methamphetamine) pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.03(A)(2) and (C)(1)(f), a felony of the first degree; Count II, trafficking in a fentanyl-related compound pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.03(A)(2) and (C)(9)(e), a felony of the second degree; Count III, aggravated possession of drugs (methamphetamine) pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.11(A) and (C)(1)(e), a felony of the first degree; and Count IV, possession of drugs pursuant to O.R.C. §2925.11(A), (C)(10)(a) and (C)(2)(c), a misdemeanor of the first degree (as amended). Counts I and III are accompanied by major-drug-offender specifications pursuant to O.R.C. §2941.1410(A).

Ms. Adams entered pleas of not guilty and filed a motion to suppress evidence arising from her stop and arrest.

Motion to Suppress

The matter proceeded to an evidentiary hearing on October 17, 2022, and the following evidence was adduced at the suppression hearing. The court overruled Ms. Adams motion to suppress.

Ms. Adams was convicted and appeals her conviction.

In the instant case, Ms. Adams argues Det. May did not have reasonable suspicion to Terry stop her in the Speedway parking lot, and the stop was unreasonably prolonged for Sgt. Leggett to bring canine Hoke to the scene for a sniff.

We will first address Det. May’s initial encounter with Ms. Adams in the gas station parking lot, which Ms. Adams seeks to classify as a Terry stop. Instead, we find Det. May’s initial conversation with Ms. Adams to have been a consensual encounter.

Consensual Encounter or Terry Stop?

Ohio law accordingly recognizes a distinction between a Terry stop and a consensual encounter; the latter occurs “when the police merely approach a person in a public place, engage the person in conversation, request information, and the person is free not to answer and walk away.” State v. Daniels, 2003–Ohio–2492, quoting State v. Taylor, 106 Ohio App.3d 741, 747, (1995). Thus, police officers are permitted to engage in “consensual encounters” with citizens without running afoul of Fourth Amendment prohibitions on searches and seizures. citing Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434 (1991).  Furthermore, a police officer’s request to examine a person’s identification does not render an encounter nonconsensual. Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 434 (1991)

Ms. Adams was Free to Leave

Det. May’s initial approach to Ms. Adams in the parking lot and their ensuing conversation was entirely voluntary and Ms. Adams was free to leave. Det. May’s attention was drawn to Ms. Adams’s car because it had West Virginia plates, was parked at an island by an apparent rental SUV with North Carolina plates, and was parked at the pump for an unusually long period of time. As Det. May watched the vehicles, Deon Christopher exited Ms. Adams’s car and “jogged” to the SUV before it pulled away. This occurred at a gas station known for drug activity. The totality of the circumstances led Det. May to question whether he observed a drug transaction and he called Sgt. Leggett to tell him to watch the SUV. When Ms. Adams came out of the gas station for the second time, Det. May wanted to contact her and did so once a uniformed officer was present. Det. May was in plain clothes. He approached Ms. Adams, identified himself, showed his badge, and asked what brought her to Cambridge.

Consensual Encounter

Ms. Adams argues Det. May’s approach and the ensuing conversation resulted in an unlawful police detention under the Fourth Amendment. However, we find the initial encounter between Ms. Adams and Det. May to be consensual for purposes of the Fourth Amendment because Det. May had no reason or intent to detain Ms. Adams at that point.

Det. May’s interaction with Ms. Adams began as a consensual encounter which then progressed to an investigative or Terry stop such that the Fourth Amendment was not implicated. Ms. Adams next argues even if the Court finds the initial “detention” of her was proper and/or that it was a consensual encounter, the subsequent actions of the officers resulted in the incident turning into an improper detainment or custodial arrest prior to the canine drug sniff of the vehicle.

Ms. Adams was Walking Reasonable Suspicion

As Det. May spoke to Ms. Adams, she was visibly nervous and claimed she came to Cambridge to cheat on her husband. Det. May had observed Christopher jog from Ms. Adams’s vehicle to the SUV. His training and experience, together with the location and the actions he observed in the parking lot, led him to believe a drug transaction occurred between the occupants of the vehicles. As he spoke to Ms. Adams, Sgt. Leggett called to say he traffic-stopped the SUV and found large amounts of currency on the occupants, confirming Det. May’s suspicion that a drug transaction took place and the narcotics were likely with Ms. Adams. The consensual encounter was thus elevated into a Terry stop while Det. May investigated further.

“Under Terry, police officers Det. May briefly stop and/or temporarily detain individuals in order to investigate possible criminal activity if the officers have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot.” State v. Swift, 2016–Ohio–8191. Det. May testified that Ms. Adams was not free to leave once Sgt. Leggett advised him of the traffic stop of the SUV. At that point, Det. May had increasing evidence supporting his reasonable, articulable suspicion that he witnessed a drug transaction because the occupants of the SUV were flush with cash.

Canine Alert Establishes Probable Cause to Search

Det. May had reasonable, articulable suspicion to temporarily detain Ms. Adams and question her further. In the meantime, he told Sgt. Leggett to return with canine Hoke, and canine Hoke was at Speedway in about 10 minutes. The use of a drug detection dog does not constitute a “search” and an officer is not required, prior to a dog sniff, to establish either probable cause or a reasonable suspicion that drugs are concealed in a vehicle. United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696, 707, (1983).  Further, if a trained narcotics dog alerts to the odor of drugs from a lawfully detained vehicle, an officer has probable cause to search the vehicle for contraband. United States v. Reed, 141 F.3d 644 (6th Cir.1998).

No violation of Ms. Adams’s Fourth Amendment rights has been demonstrated.

Det. May had a reasonable suspicion of illegal drug activity. He could lawfully call for a police dog and wait for it to arrive to check for drugs based on this suspicion. Once canine Hoke alerted to Ms. Adams’s car, the officers had probable cause to search that vehicle for contraband. No violation of Ms. Adams’s Fourth Amendment rights has been demonstrated.

Holding

The trial court did not err in overruling Ms. Adams’s motion to suppress, and the second assignment of error is overruled.

Ms. Adams was sentenced to eighteen to twenty-three and a half years in prison.

https://appgateway.drc.ohio.gov/OffenderSearch/Search/Details/W110172

Mr. Christian was sentenced to ten to fifteen years in prison in a separate case.

https://appgateway.drc.ohio.gov/OffenderSearch/Search/Details/A809222

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Adams, 2023 – Ohio – 4691 and the Ohio Department Rehabilitation and Corrections website.

State v. Adams, 2023 – Ohio – 4691 was issued by the Twelfth District Appellate Court on December 21, 2024 and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Brown, Butler, Clermont, Clinton, Fayette, Madison, Preble and Warren.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Consensual Encounter – Adams makes an argument that her initial encounter with Deputy Devon Ryan and Det. May was an investigative detention and that in that moment the deputies lacked reasonable suspicion. Whether an encounter is consensual or an investigative detention is based on the actions of both the officers and the suspect.  In this case the court identified “Det. May was in plain clothes. He approached Ms. Adams, identified himself, showed his badge, and asked what brought her to Cambridge … we find the initial encounter between Ms. Adams and Det. May to be consensual for purposes of the Fourth Amendment because Det. May had no reason or intent to detain Ms. Adams at that point.”.
  2. Canine Alert – A canine alert establishes probable cause to search a vehicle and in this case canine Hoke alerted on Ms. Adams’ meth-filled car. The subsequent search resulted in a Major Drug Offender amount of methamphetamine.
  3. Pre-Sent Arms! Detective May and Sergeant Leggett of the Central Ohio Drug Enforcement Task Force and Deputy Devon Ryan should be highly commended for their actions on Wednesday December 8, 2021 for removing a major drug offender from our Buckeye community. Well done!

Does your agency train on Terry Stops?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.