Justice Keith R. Blackwell
Justice Keith R. Blackwell (John Disney/Daily Report)

The Georgia Supreme Court on Tuesday wrestled with a state Court of Appeals opinion that purported to uphold a trial judge’s decision in a criminal case—even though only six of the appeals court’s 12 judges said the trial judge was right.

Lawyers debated whether the appeals judges—upon realizing they were split—should have referred the matter to the high court immediately rather than issuing dueling opinions that seemed to perplex the justices.

At issue is a Gwinnett County traffic stop based on a police camera system that runs images of license plates on passing vehicles through a database of outstanding warrants. The Georgia Supreme Court last year agreed to hear the defendant’s argument that evidence of marijuana possession gathered in a search conducted during the stop should have been suppressed, but the justices also indicated they would consider whether the Court of Appeals correctly followed a state constitutional provision requiring cases in which the judges are equally split to be transferred to the high court.

The appellant is Sonia Rodriguez of Lilburn, who was arrested and charged with marijuana possession after an August 2010 traffic stop. In advance of any trial, Rodriguez appealed the trial judge’s denial of a motion to suppress marijuana found by police in her car during the traffic stop.

As recounted in the April 12 Court of Appeals opinion that purported to decide the case, a police officer stopped the vehicle driven by Rodriguez based on information provided to the officer by an automatic license plate recognition system. That system used cameras mounted on the officer’s police car to record images of license plates on passing vehicles. As the Chevrolet Impala driven by Rodriguez passed the officer’s car, the system alerted the officer that an Enrique Sanchez was wanted on an outstanding arrest warrant for failing to appear in court on citations issued to Sanchez while driving an Impala with the displayed license plate.

Based on that alert, the officer stopped the Impala but found via a computer check that the vehicle was registered to Rodriguez. Rodriguez produced identification and explained that Sanchez was her son and that he had failed to appear because he was in prison.

Another computer check showed that the passenger in the Impala, Ereka Williams, had an outstanding arrest warrant from Florida. The officer who initiated the stop was by this point joined by another officer, and the police proceeded to seek verification of extradition of Williams on the Florida charge. While waiting, the police obtained Rodriguez’s consent for a search of her vehicle and Williams’ consent for a search of her purse.

In their search, the officers found marijuana in the vehicle console and trunk and in Williams’ purse. Rodriguez was charged with one count of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute. She filed a motion to suppress the marijuana, a motion that Gwinnett Superior Court Judge Michael Clark denied. (Williams also was named as a defendant in the indictment but is not a party to the appeal.)

A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals affirmed Clark, with Judge Sara Doyle writing the Feb. 19 opinion joined by Judges Gary Andrews and Michael Boggs. Doyle wrote that the stop of the vehicle was lawful and that the officer didn’t unreasonably extend the stop’s scope or duration.

The defense filed a motion for reconsideration which, in an unusual turn of events, prompted the consideration of the case by all 12 of the court’s judges and the issuance of a new decision, apparently written by a different judge. Under the court’s rules, cases are to be considered by the whole court when one of the court’s judges wants the court to overrule one of its precedents.

However, the court’s opinions issued last April in the Rodriguez case don’t make clear what precedent was in play.

Instead, an unsigned opinion said that Rodriguez had waived the argument that the initial stop of the vehicle was invalid, given that her written motion to suppress didn’t make that point. The unsigned opinion also held that, assuming the stop was valid, there was no reason to conclude Rodriguez’s consent to search was the product of an improper expansion of the scope or duration of the stop.

Andrews and Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes concurred in that opinion. Boggs and Judge Elizabeth Branch agreed with the outcome and the part of the opinion that addressed whether the stop was improperly expanded. Judge William Ray II and Carla Wong McMillian agreed with the outcome. Based on those six votes, the decision was marked, “Judgment affirmed.”

But six other judges dissented. Changing her view of the case, Doyle wrote an opinion joined by then-Chief Judge John Ellington and Judges Herbert Phipps and Christopher McFadden. She said the court should decide the issue of the validity of the stop, given that the trial judge had invited the parties to brief that issue and had ruled on the question.

She concluded police lacked authority to stop Rodriguez because they didn’t observe her commit any traffic violation or make any effort to verify anything about the driver of the vehicle, such as gender, before stopping the car.

Judge Stephen Dillard wrote a separate dissent, saying the defense’s failure to put the state on notice before the suppression hearing as to its challenge of the stop’s validity meant the case should be sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.

He also lamented the “limited amount of time that many of the members of the Court had to consider the complex issues presented by the appeal” under the constitutional “two-term” rule that required the court to decide the case on that day. That problem, he argued, also was a reason to send the case back to the trial court.

Without explaining her views, Judge M. Yvette Miller dissented as well.

On Tuesday, Rodriguez’s appointed lawyer, Eric Crawford of Monroe, said the appeals court was evenly divided and should have sent the case directly to the high court. Assistant District Attorney Ayanna Sterling-Jones contended that an automatic transfer required the appeals court judges to be equally divided on all of the issues that were before them, adding, “I welcome any clarification on it.”

“But put yourself in Judge Clark’s position,” said Justice Keith Blackwell, suggesting the trial judge would have been in a difficult spot had the high court not agreed to hear the case.

Sterling-Jones said the decision should be made by the six judges who were in agreement, noting that Dillard merely said the state should have been given more time to develop its position, and Miller’s views were unclear.

But Blackwell, who was a Court of Appeals judge before being promoted in 2012, noted the judges who agreed to affirm the trial court had varying views, as well. “I’m not even sure why the per curiam opinion is categorized as the controlling opinion other than that the clerk of the Court of Appeals apparently decided it was and put it first in the bundle of opinions,” Blackwell added.

Arguing that the marijuana should be suppressed, Crawford noted that the officer didn’t confirm who was in the vehicle, including identifying occupants’ race or gender, before he stopped it. Justice David Nahmias questioned whether doing so was feasible, asking about the Impala’s speed, but Crawford said it had been done in other cases.

But even assuming the stop was valid, Crawford said there was no basis to continue the stop once he confirmed Sanchez wasn’t in the car, noting the officer testified he didn’t have a reason to doubt Rodriguez’s explanation on that point. “At that point reasonable suspicion has evaporated,” said Crawford.

Arguing the merits of the suppression issue for the state, ADA Franklin Clark said the traffic stop was valid and wasn’t unreasonably extended. He said police can check drivers’ licenses for outstanding warrants when a car is validly stopped.

“It’s putting officers’ safety first,” said Clark.

The case is Rodriguez v. State, No. S13G1167.

I’m not even sure why the per curiam opinion is categorized as the controlling opinion other than that the clerk of the Court of Appeals apparently decided it was and put it first.”

—Justice Keith Blackwell