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Bates v. United States

June 15, 2000

RONALD E. BATES, APPELLANT,
V.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE.



Before Terry, Schwelb, and Glickman, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Glickman, Associate Judge

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia

(Hon. Ellen S. Huvelle, Trial Judge)

(Argued November 2, 1999

Appellant Ronald Bates appeals from his convictions for possession with intent to distribute cocaine, possession of drug paraphernalia, and possession of marijuana. *fn1 Bates raises three issues for our review: whether physical evidence was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, whether the evidence at trial was sufficient to support his convictions, and whether the trial court erred in denying a mistrial as the remedy for the prosecutor's improper rebuttal closing argument. We affirm.

I.

Ronald Bates was arrested along with his co-defendant, Maurice Clayborne, *fn2 on April 9, 1996. According to the government's evidence at both the suppression hearing and the trial, *fn3 Officer Ralph Shumac and his partners were on patrol in an unmarked vehicle on the night of April 9 in the Barry Farms area of Southeast Washington. As they drove, the officers noticed Bates and Clayborne standing beside a parked car, described as an older model black Ford, in the 1300 block of Stevens Road. The police had received several anonymous complaints that narcotics were being sold out of an abandoned automobile in that block. As the officers pulled up, Bates threw a brown paper bag that he was holding into the trunk of the Ford, closed the trunk lid, and started to walk away with Clayborne. The officers got out of their car, and Bates and Clayborne broke into a run. Officer Shumac pursued Bates on foot while Officer Phillip McNichol ran after Clayborne. Although the officers were not in uniform, Officer McNichol was wearing a tactical vest with the word "Police" written across its front and back. During the chase, Officer Shumac saw Bates toss ziplock bags containing a white rock-like substance (which turned out to be crack cocaine). Officer McNichol saw Clayborne remove a handgun from his waistband and throw it to the ground.

Officer Shumac caught up to Bates and arrested him. He turned Bates over to Officer Joseph Haggerty, who escorted Bates back to the parked Ford. Retracing his path, Officer Shumac retrieved nine ziplock bags which Bates had discarded. Meanwhile, Officer McNichol arrested Clayborne and recovered the handgun which Clayborne had dropped. After receiving the ziplock bags from Officer Shumac, Officer Haggerty pried open the trunk of the Ford and searched it. The brown paper bag found inside the trunk - the bag which the police saw Bates put there - held 99 ziplock bags containing crack cocaine, plus hundreds of empty ziplock bags. The police also recovered from the trunk a large quantity of marijuana, one large white rock of crack cocaine, a digital scale and approximately $152 in cash.

A search of Bates' person at the scene yielded two marijuana cigarettes. At Seventh District Police Headquarters, another officer searched Bates more thoroughly and discovered approximately twelve ziplock bags of crack cocaine in Bates' pants leg and boot.

According to the police narcotics expert who testified at trial, the street value, quantity and packaging of the crack cocaine and marijuana were indicative of distribution rather than possession for personal consumption by a single person.

Bates presented no evidence of his own at trial. *fn4

II.

The trial court concluded that the police had probable cause to arrest Bates and to search the trunk of the parked Ford. We agree with that ruling. After Officer Shumac saw Bates drop nine ziplock bags with white rocks in them, the officer had probable cause to arrest Bates for possession of crack cocaine. Cf. United States v. Wider, 293 U.S. App. D.C. 16, 19, 951 F.2d 1283, 1286 (1991) (finding probable cause to arrest where officer observed suspect abandon a bag containing white rocks). The subsequent searches of Bates' person, which resulted in the seizure of marijuana and crack cocaine, were lawful as incident to his arrest. See United States v. Robinson, 414 U.S. 218, 224 (1973). Having seen Bates put a brown paper bag he was holding in the trunk of the car next to which he was standing, shut the trunk lid, run away, and discard bags of crack cocaine as he ran, the police had probable cause to believe that there was contraband in both the brown paper bag and the trunk. Cf. United States v. Brown, 708 A.2d 637, 639 (D.C. 1998); Wider, 293 U.S. App. D.C. at 19, 951 F.2d at 1286. Under the so-called automobile exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment, the police therefore were permitted to search the trunk, and any containers in the trunk which might contain contraband, without having obtained a search warrant. See Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940 (1996) ("If a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment . . . permits police to search the vehicle without more."); California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565, 580 (1991) (warrantless search of container located in automobile permissible if based on probable cause to believe container holds contraband); United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 825 (1982) (warrantless search of container located in automobile permissible if based on probable cause to believe contraband is in automobile and could be found in container).

We also agree with the trial court that the evidence was sufficient to permit the jury to find Bates guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, see Curry, supra note 3, 520 A.2d at 263, of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, *fn5 possession of drug paraphernalia, *fn6 and possession of marijuana. *fn7 If the jury credited the testimony of the arresting officers, as it obviously did, the evidence of Bates' guilt, as summarized above, was overwhelming. See, e.g., Spriggs v. United States, 618 A.2d 701, 704 (D.C. 1992); Chambers v. United States, 564 A.2d 26, 31 (D.C. 1989).

III.

We now address Bates' claim of improper prosecutorial argument. Bates contends that the trial court should have granted his motion for a mistrial after the prosecutor made what Bates calls an "improper appeal to the racial sensitivities of the jury" in the government's rebuttal closing argument. The government, while arguing that the prosecutor was "provoked by defense counsel's racially charged and unsupported closing argument," agrees that the rebuttal was improper. The government argues, however, that a mistrial was not required because the trial court immediately and forcefully instructed the jury to disregard the improper comment, the comment did not bear directly on Bates' guilt or innocence, and the case against Bates was a strong one. We find that in the heat of Bates' trial, both counsel made inappropriate - in some instances, highly inappropriate - comments that were calculated to divert the jury from reasoned ...


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