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Dawson v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

July 10, 2019


         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Barry M. Cohen, Senior Judge; L.T. Case No. 502017CF005156AXXXMB.

          Carey Haughwout, Public Defender, and Benjamin Eisenberg, Assistant Public Defender, West Palm Beach, for appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Joseph D. Coronato, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, West Palm Beach, for appellee.

          DAMOORGIAN, J.

         Vinceson Dawson ("Defendant") appeals his conviction and sentence for one count of trafficking in oxycodone in an amount greater than 25 grams but less than 100 grams and one count of possession of cocaine. Finding merit in Defendant's argument that the multiple references to collateral crimes evidence deprived him of a fair trial, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

         On the date of Defendant's arrest, police were conducting surveillance of a house in Boynton Beach as they waited to execute a search warrant on the house. Defendant resided at the house. Officers observed Defendant park his gold Buick in the driveway of the house next door to the target house. Shortly thereafter, a male ("the passenger") pulled up into the same driveway and entered the passenger side of Defendant's vehicle. The passenger did not appear to have any items in his hands as he entered the vehicle.

         Within seconds of the passenger entering the vehicle, several officers converged upon the vehicle. One of the officers observed Defendant sitting in the driver's seat with a yellow prescription pill bottle on his lap. A search of the vehicle revealed a baggy containing crack cocaine, cash, two cell phones, and prescription pill bottles and baggies containing oxycodone pills. In total, officers recovered from Defendant's vehicle approximately 250 oxycodone pills with a net weight of 33.766 grams. None of the items retrieved from the vehicle were tested for fingerprints or DNA.

         Defendant denied having any knowledge about the contraband, cash, or cell phones found inside the vehicle and further denied having a pill bottle on his lap when officers converged on the vehicle. Defendant explained that although he owned the vehicle, he often allowed other people to use the vehicle. The passenger, in turn, insisted that he never observed a prescription pill bottle on Defendant's lap when officers converged on the vehicle.

         At trial, the prosecutor and three of the State's witnesses referred to the fact that Defendant's house was under surveillance, that a search warrant related to narcotics had been issued, and that Defendant was the target. In each instance, defense counsel objected and moved for mistrial on the basis that the references were irrelevant and improperly inferred Defendant had previously engaged in illegal drug activity. Although the court sustained each objection, it denied the motions for mistrial and twice provided curative instructions.

         The first reference occurred when the prosecutor asked one of the narcotics officers whether "an investigation [was] commenced which ultimately led to a lawful search of Mr. Dawson's residence?" Defense counsel objected before the officer could answer the question. The officer was permitted to testify, however, that a lawful search was ultimately conducted. The second reference occurred when a different officer testified that he was dispatched on the day in question to assist in the execution of a narcotics search warrant. The third reference occurred when a SWAT officer testified that he and his team were waiting nearby to execute the search warrant and "got the signal to move in when the defendant had arrived [and] we proceeded to the target."

         During jury deliberations, the jury submitted the following question: "What was the warrant for and what address was the warrant to be executed at?" The court responded by telling the jury that the answer to the question must be found in the evidence presented at trial. The jury ultimately found Defendant guilty of trafficking in oxycodone and possession of cocaine as charged.

         Defendant thereafter moved for new trial, arguing that the court erred in denying his motions for mistrial based upon the improper references to the search warrant. Defendant maintained that the cumulative references to the search warrant insinuated that Defendant had previously engaged in illegal drug activity which led to the issuance of a warrant to search his house. Moreover, although the court twice provided curative instructions, the instructions were clearly insufficient in light of the jury's question. Despite acknowledging that Defendant had "a very good appellate point," the court denied the motion. This appeal follows.

         It is well established "that mistrial is a drastic remedy to be granted only when an error is so prejudicial as to vitiate the entire trial, and only when necessary to ensure the defendant receives a fair trial." Jones v. State, 128 So.3d 199, 201 (Fla. 1st DCA 2013). One way in which a criminal defendant is prejudiced to the extent of necessitating a mistrial is when irrelevant collateral crimes evidence is erroneously admitted at trial. Id. The reason being that "the erroneous admission of irrelevant collateral crimes evidence is presumed harmful error because of the danger that a jury will take the bad character or propensity to crime thus ...

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