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State v. Thornton

Florida Court of Appeals, Fifth District

December 27, 2019

STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellant,
v.
PAUL THORNTON, Appellee.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE MOTION FOR REHEARING AND DISPOSITION THEREOF IF FILED

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Orange County, Gail A. Adams, Judge.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Deborah A. Chance, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, for Appellant.

          James S. Purdy, Public Defender, and Mark Alexander Williams, Assistant Public Defender, Daytona Beach, for Appellee.

          LAMBERT, J.

         In these consolidated appeals, the State of Florida challenges the trial court's orders entered in two cases below granting Appellee's motion to suppress a firearm, certain illicit drugs, and drug paraphernalia that were confiscated by law enforcement following a warrantless search of his truck. As we explain below, we reverse the suppression orders for two reasons. First, the trial court erred in finding that Appellee's vehicle was parked in the curtilage of his residence. Second, the deputy sheriff's body camera video admitted into evidence at the suppression hearing shows that the crack cocaine located in the interior of Appellee's truck was plainly and openly observable. Thus, the deputy had probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of the truck under the "automobile exception" to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution[1] and to seize the crack cocaine, as well as the firearm and other contraband he also found during the course of his search.

         FACTS-

         On the evening of February 10, 2018, two deputy sheriffs from the Orange County Sheriff's Office separately arrived at Appellee's residence to arrest him for aggravated assault with a firearm pursuant to a warrant that had been executed earlier that day by a circuit judge. The deputies knocked on the front door of the home. A woman opened the door and, in response to their inquiry, advised the deputies that Appellee did not live there.

         As the deputies prepared to leave, a truck pulled into an open lot by the residence. One of the deputies noted that the truck matched the description in the arrest warrant given by the victim of the aggravated assault. The other deputy recognized Appellee from his picture on the warrant. There were no other persons in the truck. Based upon the nature of the crime charged in the arrest warrant, the deputies ordered Appellee out of his truck at gunpoint. One of the deputies would later testify that, prior to exiting the truck, Appellee began making furtive movements as if he was trying to conceal something under the driver's seat. When Appellee stepped out of his vehicle, he was secured in handcuffs and placed in the back of one of the patrol cars.

         One of the deputies then returned to Appellee's truck and, while standing outside, used a flashlight to illuminate the truck's interior. This deputy would testify at the suppression hearing that he saw a clear plastic container "in plain sight between the driver's seat and the center console." Inside this container was a white, rock-like substance partially cut into bars or chunks that was visible through the clear container. The deputy testified that, from his training and experience, he recognized the contents of the container to be crack cocaine.

         Based on this observation, the deputy opened the door to the truck and seized the container. He then searched the remainder of the vehicle and found a loaded firearm under the driver's seat, more crack cocaine in a sandwich bag in the center console, and a small amount of marijuana. Appellee was subsequently charged with possession of cocaine, possession of twenty grams or less of marijuana, and possession of drug paraphernalia.[2] He was charged in a second case with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of ammunition by a convicted felon.

         THE MOTION TO SUPPRESS AND THE TRIAL COURT'S RULING-

         Appellee filed a motion to suppress the firearm and the contraband seized from his truck. He first argued that his truck was parked on the curtilage of his residence, which is afforded constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. See Collins v. Virginia, 138 S.Ct. 1663, 1671 (2018) (holding that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment does not give a law enforcement officer the right to enter the curtilage of a person's residence to access his vehicle without a warrant). Appellee thus asserted that the deputy's warrantless search of his truck situated inside the curtilage violated both his Fourth Amendment right and his right to privacy in the items located in his truck.

         Appellee and the deputy who seized the items from Appellee's truck were the only two witnesses to testify at the suppression hearing. Also introduced into evidence was the deputy's body camera video showing the unpaved parking area where Appellee's truck was situated and where the arrest took place. This area was surrounded by several residences, including Appellee's. The video also depicted the deputy shining his flashlight into Appellee's truck, thus illuminating what the deputy was able to observe through the window before he ...


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