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Ga. Supreme Court to hear Houston Co. drug case | News

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Ga. Supreme Court to hear Houston Co. drug case
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The Georgia Supreme Court next week is scheduled to hear arguments on whether a Warner Robins police officer had the right to chase a man found at an elementary school after midnight.

Earnest Lee Walker is appealing his conviction for cocaine distribution, according to a summary from the court. Walker's lawyers argue that crack and a pipe that he threw away during the chase should not have been used as evidence.

A hearing on the case is scheduled for Monday at the state supreme court in Atlanta.

According to the summary, Walker was arrested Feb. 23, 2011 near Pearl Stephens Elementary School.

An officer saw him walking off school property, stopped and asked the man to take his hands out of his pockets.

Walker instead ran away, the summary says.

The officer caught him in a nearby yard, tased him and arrested him.

Later, officers found a pill bottle with Walker's name on it containing the crack and the pipe.

He was convicted in August 2012, but the state appeals court later reversed his conviction.

They ruled that the officer did not have "reasonable suspicion" that Walker was involved in a crime. Therefore, the appeals court said, the officer had no right to stop and chase him, and the items found after the chase should not have been used as evidence.

The appeals court said the officer had to have probable cause that Walker was involved in a crime before he stopped him for questioning.

Prosecutors argue that being on school property after midnight is, by itself, a violation of state law.


Here is the court's summary of the case:

THE STATE V. WALKER (S13G1793)
The State of Georgia is appealing a Georgia Court of Appeals decision that reversed a man's conviction in Houston County for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The Court of Appeals ruled the trial court was wrong to deny the man's motion to suppress evidence of the drug he discarded as he ran from the police officer.
FACTS: On Feb. 23, 2011, Officer David Adriance with the Warner Robins Police Department was on duty assisting in locating a possible suspect in the attempted theft of a motorcycle. As he was driving around the Pearl Stephens Elementary School, he noticed a man later identified as Earnest Lee Walker, Sr. walking off the school property. After stopping his cruiser and getting out, Adriance approached Walker who put his hands in his sweatshirt pockets. The officer commanded Walker to take his hands from his pockets. Walker did not comply but yelled at the officer that he was just trying to get home. Walker then ran away from Adriance, who gave chase. As they ran, Adriance noticed Walker throw a pill bottle and paper towel to the ground. Eventually, he caught up with Walker in a backyard and again demanded Walker remove his hands from his pockets. When Walker refused, the officer tasered and subdued him. Other officers responded to assist and placed Walker under arrest. Adriance found the pill bottle and towel Walker had discarded. Later it was determined the bottle, which had Walker's name and address on it, contained five pieces of crack cocaine and the paper towel had a crack pipe and clothespin wrapped in it. When later asked at what point during the encounter he decided to arrest Walker, Adriance responded, "when he takes off running from me after I attempt to stop him, because what is he doing at Pearl Stephens Elementary School at twelve minutes after midnight?"
Prior to trial, Walker's attorney filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the crack and crack pipe, which the trial court denied. Following his trial in August 2012, a Houston County jury found Walker guilty of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and obstruction of an officer. On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision, agreeing with Walker that the police officer did not have a "reasonable suspicion" that Walker was involved in criminal activity as required to stop him and that Walker was entitled to refuse to comply with the demands. As a result, the appellate court ruled, the trial court erred in denying Walker's motion to suppress the evidence of crack and the crack pipe that were obtained as a result of the illegal detention. The State now appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court.
ARGUMENTS: The district attorney, representing the State, argues the Court of Appeals was wrong in ruling that Walker had been seized or detained by the officer when he ran and abandoned the cocaine. "The officer was attempting to make a brief investigatory stop when Appellee [i.e. Walker] ran away and threw the drugs on the ground before the officer could detain him," the State argues in briefs. The trial court correctly ruled that the officer had a "reasonable, articulable" suspicion because Walker "was walking on the grounds of an elementary school after midnight." Under state law, it is illegal for a person to be on school property if he "does not have a legitimate cause or need to be present thereon." Adriance was also justified in demanding Walker remove his hands from his pockets to protect his own safety in the event Walker was armed. Before the officer could gain any information to allay the suspicion or find cause for an arrest, Walker took off running. Once he discarded the drugs, the trial court reasoned, he lost any Fourth Amendment protection, as the evidence was not recovered as a result of a search, but "picked up off the ground." "Because he abandoned the cocaine before he was seized by the officer, it was not the fruit of an unlawful seizure and should not have been suppressed," the State argues. The Court of Appeals also erred in ruling the officer did not have "reasonable articulable suspicion" to detain Walker and investigate why he was on school property after midnight. "In this case, the particular facts of the incident were sufficient for the officer to have reasonable suspicion that Appellee was engaged in criminal activity," the State argues. "He was found to be on school property after midnight which in and of itself is prohibited by Georgia law." "The significant flaw in the Court of Appeals' decision is it applies the wrong legal standard by which an officer may lawfully detain an individual for questioning and investigation." "It is not necessary that an officer have all the information regarding a suspect's activity before he can detain that person for investigatory purposes," the State contends. "An arrest, however, must be based on probable cause and not mere suspicion." Here however, by "requiring the officer to obtain information as to why Appellee was on school property after midnight before he could detain him, the Court of Appeals effectively said that he was required to have evidence amounting to probable cause before he could question Appellee. In other words, the officer was required to have information that Appellee was in fact on school property for an unlawful purpose before he could detain him and investigate."
Walker's attorney argues the Court of Appeals correctly suppressed the evidence "because it was tainted by Officer Adriance's police misconduct of subjecting Mr. Walker to a second-tier Fourth Amendment seizure without having objective facts supporting an articulable suspicion of criminal activity." (A tier-one encounter is considered a voluntary conversation; tier two is considered a brief investigative stop.) "When Officer Adriance approached Mr. Walker outside of Pearl Stephens Elementary School, he did so for the purpose of detaining Mr. Walker," the attorney argues. "The purpose was manifested when Officer Adriance commanded Mr. Walker to remove his hands from his pockets. At that point, Mr. Walker was no longer free to leave and any reasonable grounds of an elementary school after midnight." Under state law, it is illegal for a person to be on school property if he "does not have a legitimate cause or need to be present thereon." Adriance was also justified in demanding Walker remove his hands from his pockets to protect his own safety in the event Walker was armed. Before the officer could gain any information to allay the suspicion or find cause for an arrest, Walker took off running. Once he discarded the drugs, the trial court reasoned, he lost any Fourth Amendment protection, as the evidence was not recovered as a result of a search, but "picked up off the ground." "Because he abandoned the cocaine before he was seized by the officer, it was not the fruit of an unlawful seizure and should not have been suppressed," the State argues. The Court of Appeals also erred in ruling the officer did not have "reasonable articulable suspicion" to detain Walker and investigate why he was on school property after midnight. "In this case, the particular facts of the incident were sufficient for the officer to have reasonable suspicion that Appellee was engaged in criminal activity," the State argues. "He was found to be on school property after midnight which in and of itself is prohibited by Georgia law." "The significant flaw in the Court of Appeals' decision is it applies the wrong legal standard by which an officer may lawfully detain an individual for questioning and investigation." "It is not necessary that an officer have all the information regarding a suspect's activity before he can detain that person for investigatory purposes," the State contends. "An arrest, however, must be based on probable cause and not mere suspicion." Here however, by "requiring the officer to obtain information as to why Appellee was on school property after midnight before he could detain him, the Court of Appeals effectively said that he was required to have evidence amounting to probable cause before he could question Appellee. In other words, the officer was required to have information that Appellee was in fact on school property for an unlawful purpose before he could detain him and investigate."
Walker's attorney argues the Court of Appeals correctly suppressed the evidence "because it was tainted by Officer Adriance's police misconduct of subjecting Mr. Walker to a second-tier Fourth Amendment seizure without having objective facts supporting an articulable suspicion of criminal activity." (A tier-one encounter is considered a voluntary conversation; tier two is considered a brief investigative stop.) "When Officer Adriance approached Mr. Walker outside of Pearl Stephens Elementary School, he did so for the purpose of detaining Mr. Walker," the attorney argues. "The purpose was manifested when Officer Adriance commanded Mr. Walker to remove his hands from his pockets. At that point, Mr. Walker was no longer free to leave and any reasonable person equally isolated by darkness and similar circumstances would have felt the same." The evidence Adriance obtained from Walker "was tainted by the unlawful seizure" and therefore "must be suppressed," the attorney argues. "Evidence that is 'abandoned' during flight following an illegal seizure must be suppressed unless that abandonment was voluntary. Mr. Walker threw down the evidence as a direct result of Officer Adriance's misconduct, and he did so before intervening circumstances could cure the taint Officer Adriance put on the evidence." Walker "'abandoned' the evidence as a direct result of police misconduct, and such abandonment was not truly voluntary," his attorney contends.
Attorneys for Appellant (State): George Hartwig, III, Daniel Bibler, Dep. Chief Asst. D.A.
Attorney for Appellee (Walker): Angie Coggins, Chief Asst. Public Defender


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