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State v. Miller

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

October 16, 2019

STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellant,
v.
GREGORY EDWARD GUANSO MILLER, Appellee.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Sarasota County; Debra Johnes Riva, Judge.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Linsey Sims-Bohnenstiehl, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellant.

          Howard L. Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Cynthia J. Dodge, Assistant Public Defender, Bartow, for Appellee.

          ROTHSTEIN-YOUAKIM, JUDGE.

         The State appeals from the trial court's nonfinal order suppressing, in the State's burglary and grand-theft prosecution of Gregory Edward Guanso Miller, evidence concerning a briefcase full of money.[1] Because Miller voluntarily disclaimed any interest in the briefcase, which deputies readily observed while lawfully in his motel room, we reverse the court's suppression order.

         On June 11, 2016, sheriff's deputies in Adams County, Colorado, received information that Miller, who was wanted in Florida on an outstanding warrant arising out of a burglary and grand theft in Sarasota on May 18, 2016, was staying in a local motel room.[2] The deputies were further told that Miller may have a large amount of money in some sort of briefcase.

         After confirming the information, deputies Heath Gumm and Daniel Hill went to the motel room, which was on the second floor of the motel, and knocked on the door. Jennifer Jehle answered it. She told the deputies that Miller and another man, Michael Barnes, were in the room with her but that Miller was in the bathroom. Jehle and Barnes stepped outside of the motel room to speak with Deputy Gumm while Deputy Hill stood at the doorway of the room and repeatedly called for Miller to come out of the bathroom. A few minutes later, Miller came out and confirmed his identity, and Deputy Hill took him into custody.[3]

         An employee from motel management told the deputies that the room's occupants were no longer welcome on the property, and Jehle and Barnes began gathering their belongings so they could leave. Deputy Gumm waited at the room while Deputy Hill took Miller downstairs and secured him in a patrol car. Deputy Hill asked Miller if he had any personal belongings in the room; Miller said that he did and asked Deputy Hill to retrieve his jewelry. Deputy Hill then returned to the room, and he and Deputy Gumm went inside.

         The deputies noticed a long silver briefcase behind the television stand and asked Jehle and Barnes if it belonged to either of them. They both said no, and Jehle insinuated that it might belong to Miller. The deputies collected the unopened briefcase-along with some jewelry and a couple of pairs of shoes-and took it down to the patrol car. They asked Miller if it belonged to him, and Miller also said no. Only then did the deputies open the case. It was full of money.

         Miller moved to suppress the briefcase, arguing, among other things, that he had had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the motel room and that the deputies should have obtained a search warrant before seizing and opening the briefcase because none of the exceptions to the warrant requirement applied. The State responded that, among other things, Miller lacked standing to contest the search of the briefcase because he had explicitly denied that it belonged to him.

         In granting Miller's motion, the trial court concluded that, among other things, Miller had had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the motel room and that "absent proof that specific legal exceptions existed, law enforcement was unable to conduct a warrantless search of the premises at that time." The court then went on to analyze and reject the applicability of various exceptions to the warrant requirement, ultimately concluding that the "briefcase and its contents, obtained by law enforcement as a result of the search of the Defendant's hotel room, must be suppressed." We review the court's legal conclusions de novo. State v. Roman, 103 So.3d 922, 924 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012) ("[I]n reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, this court must give deference to the trial court's factual findings if those findings are supported by competent, substantial evidence, but this court must review the trial court's ruling of law de novo." (citing Jardines v. State, 73 So.3d 34, 54 (Fla. 2011))).

         The State does not challenge the trial court's conclusion that Miller had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the motel room and, therefore, had "standing" to challenge a warrantless search of the motel room by the deputies.[4] See Stoner v. California, 376 U.S. 483, 490 (1964) ("No less than a tenant of a house, or the occupant of a room in a boarding house, a guest in a hotel room is entitled to constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures." (first citing McDonald v. United States, 335 U.S. 451 (1948); then citing Johnson v. United States, 333 U.S. 10 (1948))). But therein lies the rub: the deputies did not conduct a warrantless search of the motel room. Miller conceded that the deputies were lawfully in the motel room to retrieve some of his personal items, and the trial court found that both deputies "could see the briefcase from a place where they had the lawful right to be." They did not peer into closets or rifle through drawers; they simply observed the briefcase in plain sight and asked Jehle and Barnes if it belonged to either of them.[5] No Fourth Amendment concerns were implicated. No search or seizure of any kind, of either the premises or the briefcase, had taken place. Had Miller been, say, handcuffed to the railing outside the motel room, they could have shouted the same inquiry out the doorway to him, to the same effect.

         Because Miller was secured in the patrol car, however, the deputies took the unopened briefcase downstairs to ask whether it belonged to him. Upon being presented with the unopened briefcase, Miller unequivocally disclaimed ownership of it. Having done so, he relinquished any reasonable expectation of privacy in its contents, see State v. Fosmire, 135 So.3d 1153, 1156 (Fla. 1st DCA 2014) ("A defendant who voluntarily abandons property or disclaims ownership lacks standing to challenge its search and seizure." (citing Mori v. State, 662 So.2d 431, 431 (Fla. 3d DCA 1995))), and any Fourth Amendment inquiry (with respect to Miller, at least) ends there, see Nieminski, 60 So.3d at 524 ("[B]efore the trial court considers the merits of a Fourth ...


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