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Nies v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso

July 31, 2017


         Appeal from 207th District Court of Comal County, Texas (TC # CR2014-543)

          Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, and Hughes, JJ.


          ANN CRAWFORD McCLURE, Chief Justice.

         Appellant, John Davison Nies II, appeals his conviction of possession of less than one gram of methamphetamine, enhanced by two prior felony convictions. The case proceeded to trial before a jury, but after the trial court denied Appellant's motion to suppress evidence, Appellant waived his right to a jury and entered a negotiated plea of guilty. The trial court found Appellant guilty, found the enhancement paragraphs true, and assessed Appellant's punishment in accordance with the plea bargain at imprisonment for a term of five years. We reverse and remand.


         The indictment charged Appellant with possession of less than one gram of methamphetamine. Nies filed a written motion to suppress asserting that evidence was unlawfully seized from his vehicle without a warrant, but he did not obtain a ruling before trial. Shortly after the trial began, the parties and the trial court had a discussion outside of the jury panel's presence regarding the suppression motion. The parties stipulated to the facts as set forth in the arresting officer's offense report. The report showed that Deputy Matthew Moczygemba initially stopped Nies for speeding, but he discovered that Appellant's license was suspended. Consequently, Moczygemba arrested Appellant for driving while license suspended, and Appellant instructed to Moczygemba to have his vehicle towed. Moczygemba put Appellant in the back of his patrol car, and he and another deputy inventoried Appellant's vehicle before the wrecker arrived. During the search, Moczygemba slid the shade for the sunroof back and he found a small clear container which had a crystal-like substance inside of it. The substance tested positive for methamphetamine. The trial court denied the motion to suppress and Nies waived his right to a jury trial and entered a negotiated guilty plea.


         In his first issue, Appellant contends that the trial court abused its discretion by denying the motion to suppress the evidence seized during the warrantless search of the vehicle.

         Standard of Review and Applicable Law

         The denial of a motion to suppress evidence is analyzed under a bifurcated standard of review. St. George v. State, 237 S.W.3d 720, 725 (Tex.Crim.App. 2007). We review the trial court's determination of historical facts for an abuse of discretion, but the trial court's application of law to the facts is reviewed de novo. Turrubiate v. State, 399 S.W.3d 147, 150 (Tex.Crim.App. 2013). When reviewing the trial court's determination of historical findings, we are required to give those findings almost total deference if they are supported by the evidence. Tucker v. State, 369 S.W.3d 179, 184 (Tex.Crim.App. 2012). When the trial court makes findings of fact and conclusions of law finding the officers to be credible and accepting the State's version of events, as in this case, the only question before the appellate court is whether the trial court properly applied the law to the facts it found. State v. Alderete, 314 S.W.3d 469, 472 (Tex.App.--El Paso 2010, pet. ref'd).

         The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials. U.S. Const. amend. IV; Wiede v. State, 214 S.W.3d 17, 24 (Tex.Crim.App. 2007). It is undisputed that the methamphetamine was discovered in Appellant's car as the result of a warrantless search. As a general rule, a warrantless search is per se unreasonable unless the State shows that the search falls within one of the well-established exceptions to the warrant requirement. See McGee v. State, 105 S.W.3d 609, 615 (Tex.Crim.App. 2003). Three such exceptions are at issue in this case: (1) search incident to arrest; (2) the automobile exception; and (3) an inventory search.

         Search Incident to Arrest

         Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers may search an arrestee incident to a lawful arrest. State v. Granville, 423 S.W.3d 399, 410 (Tex.Crim.App. 2014). The rationale for permitting such a warrantless search is (1) the need for officers to seize weapons or other things which might be used to assault on officer or effect an escape, and (2) the need to prevent the loss or destruction of evidence. Id. Under Arizona v. Gant, this exception to the warrant requirement does not justify a search of a vehicle after the occupants of the vehicle have been handcuffed or otherwise secured. Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332, 129 S.Ct. 1710, 1714, 173 L.Ed.2d 485 (2009). The stipulated evidence established that Appellant had been handcuffed and placed in the back of Deputy Moczygemba's patrol car before the deputies began searching the vehicle. Consequently, the search is not justified by the search incident to arrest exception.

         The ...

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