Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Eric H. Holder, Jr., Trial Judge)
Before Terry, Schwelb, and Sullivan, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sullivan
SULLIVAN, Associate Judge : This case raises an issue of first impression for this court. Specifically, we are asked to decide whether a warrantless search of the locked glove compartment in an automobile, which appellant had parked, exited, locked, and walked away from before a police officer initiated contact with him fifteen to twenty feet away, was a constitutionally valid search incident to his arrest for the misdemeanor offense of driving without a license. *fn2
The trial court denied appellant's motion to suppress the 100 ziplock bags of heroin seized from the glove compartment. Subsequently, appellant was tried and convicted of one count of possession with intent to distribute heroin in violation of D.C. Code § 33-541 (a)(1) (1988). Appellant now challenges the denial of his motions to suppress evidence and for judgment of acquittal. We hold that the warrantless search of the automobile in this case was constitutionally invalid. Accordingly, we reverse appellant's conviction for possession with intent to distribute heroin and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion. *fn3
The facts pertinent to our review are limited to those set forth in the findings of the trial court as follows:
The Court finds that Officer Christian, who was alone, saw the defendant . . . [operate and park] . . . a car that had no front license tag. Officer Christian approached that car and the defendant got out of the car.
Apparently the defendant and Officer Christian met about fifteen to twenty feet from the car, and at that time Officer Christian asked the defendant about the front tag and if had a driver's license. The defendant said that he had no license and started to flee. He was stopped rather quickly by Officer Christian and then placed under arrest.
The Court finds also that after the arrest, Officer Christian asked the defendant who owned the car. The defendant replied that his uncle, Kevin Lewis, actually owned the car. This all happened, from the testimony, about fifteen to twenty feet away from the car. The car, at that time, was locked.
The officer called for a transport vehicle. While waiting [for ten to fifteen minutes] with the defendant for the transport, about ten people who the officer indicated were people known to him or he suspected were users of drugs, told Officer Christian that they wanted to get the keys to the car.
He wondered why and could have concluded that they thought the drugs were in the car. Also, Officer Christian said in the grand jury that he was suspicious of the car due to a prior incident that had happened I think about a week or so before with the defendant.
The transport vehicle arrived, and at that time Officer Christian searched the car. He went into the locked glove compartment and unlocked it, I presume, and found one hundred bags of heroin. He used the key that he got from the defendant to unlock the car and presumably to unlock the glove compartment itself.
The Court finds, based on all of these facts and under the applicable law, that the search conducted by Officer Christian was valid. . . .
Since neither party contests the facts, or any part of them, as "clearly erroneous," see Davis v. United States, 564 A.2d 31, 35 (D.C. 1989) (en banc) (quoting D.C. Code § 17-305 (a) (1981)), we review the trial court's findings deferentially. See Peay v. United States, 597 A.2d 1318, 1320 (D.C. 1991) (en banc). Our review of the court's legal Conclusions in granting or denying a motion to suppress evidence, however, is de novo. See Gomez v. United States, 597 A.2d 884, 889 (D.C. 1991); Cauthen v. United States, 592 A.2d 1021, 1022 (D.C. 1991); Brown v. United States, 590 A.2d 1008, 1020 (D.C. 1991). "Essentially, our role is to ensure that the trial court had a substantial basis for ...