[T]he evidence in the record supports the trial court’s determination that Mr. Hartfield gave valid consent for the deputies to enter the trailer. The officers then discovered several items in plain view that provided them with probable cause to obtain a search warrant.

State v. Hartfield

2023 – Ohio – 4708

Third District Appellate Court

Seneca County, Ohio

December 26, 2023

Just acting kind of off … Progressively got Worse … and … Shooting a gun

On January 23, 2022, Alexis Haudenshild (“Ms. Haudenshild”) observed her neighbor’s boyfriend, Mr. Marcus Hartfield, yelling as he walked around his yard with a gun. She testified that he was “just acting kind of off,” describing his behavior as “erratic” and “paranoid.” He was also getting in and out of a car that was parked outside of his trailer. Ms. Haudenshild testified that this situation “progressively got worse” and that he “was shooting” the gun with no one around him. Ms. Haudenshild then decided to call 9-1-1.

Deputies Approach at Low Ready

Deputy Christopher Potter (“Deputy Potter”) was one of four officers from the Seneca County Sherriff’s Office who responded to this call. He testified that the officers drove to the mobile home park, exited their cruisers, and approached Mr. Hartfield’s trailer on foot. Since Mr. Hartfield reportedly had a gun, three of the officers had their service weapons drawn and pointed at the ground in a “low, ready” position. Deputy Potter did not have his service weapon drawn when Mr. Hartfield emerged from the trailer.

Compliance – Pat Down – No Weapons

To ensure that Mr. Hartfield was not armed, Deputy Potter directed Mr. Hartfield to show them his hands. Deputy Potter then explained why the officers were present. At this point, Deputy Luke Cantu (“Deputy Cantu”) asked for permission to conduct a pat down of Mr. Hartfield’s person to determine if he had any weapons. Mr. Hartfield complied and was found to be unarmed. The officers then holstered their service weapons.

Who are the They in They?

Deputy Potter asked Mr. Hartfield “what was going on.” Mr. Hartfield replied that “they were running around knocking on doors and hiding in sheds.” When Deputy Potter inquired into “who ‘they’ were,” Mr. Hartfield said that “he didn’t know but … they were out to get him.” Deputy Potter then asked if Mr. Hartfield had a firearm. While he denied having a gun, Mr. Hartfield indicated that his girlfriend owned one and that he did not know where it was located. He also reported that his girlfriend was not home but that his daughter was sleeping inside the trailer. 

Mr. Hartfield Held the Door Open for the Deputies

Deputy Potter testified that, at this point, he “asked him [Mr. Hartfield] if we could go inside and talk, and he said yeah.” Deputy Potter testified that Mr. Hartfield then “walked up the stairs, opened the front door, stepped inside, held the door open for me.” Once inside, the officers asked Mr. Hartfield to sit on the couch while they verified whether anyone else was in the trailer besides Mr. Hartfield’s juvenile daughter. Mr. Hartfield directed them to a room closed off by a curtain. Deputy Potter drew the curtain back, observed two children sleeping in the bedroom, and then returned to where Mr. Hartfield was located.

Cocaine is Plain View

Upon entering the trailer, Deputy Don Breidenbach (“Deputy Breidenbach”) looked to his right and observed an open handgun case sitting on the kitchen table. He testified that, since he wanted to secure any readily accessible firearms, he went to examine the gun case. The case contained a loaded magazine but no handgun. Deputy Breidenbach then looked up and observed a bag filled with a white powdery substance on top of a freezer in the kitchen. This substance appeared to be cocaine. At this point, Mr. Hartfield was detained and informed of his Miranda rights.

Search Warrant

The deputies then contacted Detective Brandon Bell (“Detective Bell”) of the Fostoria Police Department. After arriving at the trailer, Detective Bell located two spent shell casings on the ground just outside the front door. The officers secured a search warrant and located a Glock handgun with a loaded magazine on the front seat of the car that was sitting outside of the trailer.

Indicted

On February 23, 2022, Mr. Hartfield was indicted on one count of discharging a firearm on or near prohibited premises in violation of O.R.C. §2923.162(A)(3), a third-degree felony; one count of having weapons while under disability in violation of O.R.C. §2923.13(A)(3), a third-degree felony; one count of cocaine possession in violation of O.R.C. §2925.11(A), a second-degree felony; and one count of endangering children in violation of O.R.C. §2919.22(A), a first-degree misdemeanor.

Motion to Suppress is Denied

On April 11, 2022, Mr. Hartfield filed a motion to suppress, arguing that he did not voluntarily consent for the deputies to enter the trailer. At a suppression hearing on August 16, 2022, Ms. Haudenshild, the four deputies who responded to the call, and Detective Bell testified. On October 5, 2022, the trial court denied the motion to suppress. On January 27, 2023, Mr. Hartfield entered a plea of no contest with a consent to a finding of guilt to all four charges in the indictment. The trial court accepted his pleas and issued a judgment entry of sentencing on March 9, 2023.

Appeal is Filed

Mr. Hartfield filed his notice of appeal on March 30, 2023. [Note: There were three appeals filed though I will only evaluate one – whether the officers were lawfully inside Mr. Hartfield’s trailer.]

Did Mr. Hartfield Give Consent for the Deputies to Enter?

Mr. Hartfield asserts that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress because he did not give voluntary consent for the deputies to enter the trailer.

Did the Deputies Approach at Low Ready Render the Encounter Involuntary?

Mr. Hartfield raises three main arguments to establish that the consent exception does not apply in this case. First, he asserts that, during his initial encounter with law enforcement, the officers engaged in a show of force that rendered his consent involuntary. In particular, Mr. Hartfield points to the fact that three of the four officers had their service weapons drawn in a “low, ready position” when they first approached the trailer.

Can an Encounter De-Escalate from Investigative Detention to Consent?

Deputy Decker Kneeskern testified that, in accordance with their training, several of the officers had their service weapons drawn since they were responding to a report that Mr. Hartfield had a gun and was behaving erratically. Deputy Potter testified that his service weapon was holstered when he made contact with Mr. Hartfield. Deputy Cantu testified that he never had his service weapon pointed at Mr. Hartfield and that he holstered his sidearm before he conducted a pat-down of Mr. Hartfield’s person. As soon as the pat-down was completed, the other two deputies holstered their service weapons.

Conversational

Deputy Potter then began to speak with Mr. Hartfield, describing the tone of this discussion as “conversational.”.  He testified that no voices were raised and that Mr. Hartfield was compliant. Aside from the pat-down, no officer had placed a hand on Mr. Hartfield. Further, Mr. Hartfield had not been handcuffed or detained. Deputy Potter testified that he asked if they could continue speaking inside the trailer and that Mr. Hartfield said, “Yeah.”

Held the Door Open

Deputy Potter stated that Mr. Hartfield then “walked up the stairs, opened the front door, stepped inside, held the door open for me.” State v. Allen, 2018-Ohio-3240 (“Courts have found such actions as opening a door and stepping back, or leading an officer through an open door without expressing an intent that he should not follow constitute implied consent.”), quoting State v. Cooper, 2003-Ohio-5161. Deputy Potter also indicated that Mr. Hartfield never revoked his consent after they were inside.

Was it Objectively Reasonable to Approach an Active Shooter with Weapons Draw?

The testimony of the other officers who were present at the scene confirmed Deputy Potter’s account of these events. Based on the evidence presented at the suppression hearing, the trial court concluded that the deputies holstered their weapons after the initial determination that the situation was safe and that Mr. Hartfield didn’t have a weapon on his person. Based upon the nature of the call, which the deputies explained to Mr. Hartfield, it was not unreasonable for the deputies to appear with their weapons unholstered. The trial court noted that Deputy Potter was outside when he asked if they could speak inside and that the deputies’ service weapons were holstered at this time.

Competent, Credible Evidence that Mr. Hartfield’s Consent was Voluntary

The trial court found that “Mr. Hartfield was not under any duress when he replied in the affirmative and held the door open for [the] deputies to enter.”.  “Whether consent was freely and voluntarily given, or whether it was the product of duress, coercion, or deception, is a question of fact.” Having reviewed the record, we conclude that the trial court’s finding that Mr. Hartfield’s consent was voluntary is supported by some competent, credible evidence. Thus, we conclude his first argument is without merit.

Law Enforcement is Not Required to Inform a Suspect of his Right to Refuse Consent

Second, Mr. Hartfield argues that he was not expressly informed by the officers that he had a right to refuse them entry into the trailer. Caselaw is clear that “[P]olice officers need not warn an individual of the right to refuse consent.” State v. Richardson, 2021-Ohio-2751.  [Note: Also see Scheckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218 (1973) “Voluntariness is a question of fact to be determined from all the circumstances and while the subject’s knowledge of a right to refuse is a factor to be taken into account the prosecution is not required to demonstrate such knowledge as a prerequisite to establishing a voluntary consent.”  Id at 248 – 249.].

Mr. Hartfield not only gave verbal permission to the deputies but also undertook voluntary actions to facilitate their entry into the trailer.

Knowledge of the right to refuse consent is not a prerequisite to establishing voluntary consent, but is a relevant factor to be taken into account. Consent to a search that is obtained by threats or force, or granted only in submission to a claim of lawful authority, is invalid. [Schneckloth, supra.] Such ‘lawful authority’ is an express or implied false claim by police that they can immediately proceed to make the search in any event.

While Mr. Hartfield was not expressly informed that he had a right to refuse consent, Deputy Potter expressly asked if they could speak inside the trailer. Since the record does not contain any evidence of threats, the use of force, or false claims of lawful authority, asking this question implicitly gave Mr. Hartfield the option to refuse. But in response, Mr. Hartfield not only gave verbal permission to the deputies but also undertook voluntary actions to facilitate their entry into the trailer. Thus, we conclude that his second argument is without merit.

Was Mr. Hartfield in a “state of psychosis” that rendered his Consent Involuntary?

Third, Mr. Hartfield argues that his consent was involuntary since he was not behaving rationally during his interaction with the deputies. Deputy Potter testified that Mr. Hartfield was “paranoid about someone running around and knocking on doors.” However, he denied that Mr. Hartfield appeared to be “in a state of psychosis.”Deputy Potter further stated that Mr. Hartfield was calm, was able to answer questions, did not raise his voice, and was cooperative. Further, when he was asked to show his hands and asked to submit to a pat-down, Mr. Hartfield was able to understand these requests and respond appropriately. After Deputy Potter asked to speak inside the trailer, Mr. Hartfield demonstrated he understood this request by walking to the door and facilitating the entry of the deputies. Mr. Hartfield’s actions consistently indicated that he understood what was being asked of him and that he had the ability to make decisions in response. Thus, we conclude that his third argument is without merit.

Mr. Hartfield Argues that a Bag of Cocaine in Plain View is NOT Probable Cause

Beyond the issue of whether he gave valid consent, Mr. Hartfield also argues that the warrant that law enforcement obtained was not based on probable cause. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that warrants issue only ‘upon probable cause.’ Probable cause ‘means less than evidence which would justify condemnation,’ so that only the ‘probability, and not a prima facie showing of criminal activity is the standard of probable cause.’ 

In this case, law enforcement discovered what appeared to be a bag of cocaine that was sitting in plain view on the freezer in the kitchen. The officers also located a handgun case that contained a loaded magazine but no firearm. Detective Bell also located two spent shell casings, which suggested that a firearm had been discharged in a residential area. Further, Ms. Haudenshild and her fiancé gave witness statements to the police. They reported hearing a gunshot and observing Mr. Hartfield walking around the yard with a handgun. Ms. Haudenshild had also reported seeing Mr. Hartfield getting in and out of the car parked outside of the trailer with a handgun. Based upon these reports and the items discovered, the judge had a substantial basis to conclude that sufficient probable cause existed to issue a search warrant in this case.

Conclusion and Holding

In conclusion, the evidence in the record supports the trial court’s determination that Mr. Hartfield gave valid consent for the deputies to enter the trailer. The officers then discovered several items in plain view that provided them with probable cause to obtain a search warrant. Thus, the trial court did not err in denying the motion to suppress. The first assignment of error is overruled.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Hartfield, 2023 – Ohio – 4708.

State v. Hartfield, 2023 – Ohio – 4708 was issued by the Third District Appellate Court and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Allen, Auglaize, Crawford, Defiance, Hancock, Hardin, Henry, Logan, Marion, Mercer, Paulding, Putnam, Seneca, Shelby, Union, Van Wert and Wyandot.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Can an encounter that begins with Investigative Detention be de-escalated to a consensual encounter?   This is an unusual case where the initial encounter would likely be determined to be an investigative detention as the deputies approached Mr. Hartfield with their firearms at low ready.  A reasonable would believe he was not free to leave in a similar encounter. However, the events that immediately followed were de-escalated and the encounter developed into a consensual encounter.  The deputies holstered their weapons, asked for consent to pat down Mr. Hartfield and asked for consent to enter his trailer.  Based on the totality of circumstances the deputies entered the trailer WITH consent.
  2. Officer Safety – The deputies approached Mr. Hartfield at low ready as that was the most reasonable approach given the nature of the 911 call. The caller informed dispatch that Mr. Hartfield was acting ‘off’ and shooting a firearm.  There should be no other way a law enforcement would approach a person suspected of recently shooting a firearm.
  3. State of Psychosis – Mr. Hartfield first argues that he did not give the deputies consent to enter his trailer. This argument is underscored that he was not rational and that rendered his consent involuntary because he was in a ‘state of psychosis’ “Mr. Hartfield argues that his consent was involuntary since he was not behaving rationally during his interaction with the deputies.”.  The Third District Appellate Court quickly dismissed this claim “Mr. Hartfield’s actions consistently indicated that he understood what was being asked of him and that he had the ability to make decisions in response. Thus, we conclude that his third argument is without merit.”.
  4. Probable Cause – Mr. Hartfield’s argument that a bag of cocaine in Plain View does not establish probable cause is the equivalent of believing that defunding the police will reduce crime.
  5. Pre-Sent Arms! Seneca County Deputy Christopher Potter, Deputy Luke Cantu and Deputy Don Breidenbach should all be highly commended for their actions. Well done!

Does your agency train on Consent and Investigative Detention?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.