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Salahuddin v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Virginia

January 31, 2017



          Mason D. Husby (Office of the Public Defender, on brief), for appellant.

          Benjamin H. Katz, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General; Kathleen B. Martin, [*] Senior Assistant Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

          Present: Judges Decker, AtLee and Malveaux Argued at Richmond, Virginia



         Abdul Lateef Salahuddin appeals his convictions for possession of heroin with intent to distribute in violation of Code § 18.2-248, possession of cocaine in violation of Code § 18.2-250, and obstruction of justice in violation of Code § 18.2-460. On appeal, he argues that the circuit court erroneously denied his motion to suppress evidence obtained through an allegedly unlawful entry of a hotel room. He also reasons that absent information obtained in the unlawful search, the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for obstruction of justice. Further, the appellant contends that the circuit court's admission of testimony estimating the weight of heroin observed in the hotel room was error. We hold that the officers' entry into the hotel room was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and, accordingly, that the denial of the motion to suppress was not error. We further hold that the appellant's challenge regarding the obstruction of justice conviction fails in light of our determination that the search was constitutional. Finally, we conclude that any error in admitting the challenged testimony estimating the weight of the heroin was harmless. Consequently, we affirm the appellant's convictions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On January 15, 2015, Aaron Heid, an acquaintance of the appellant, rented a room in a Fredericksburg hotel for a one-week period. Heid rented the room on the appellant's behalf and never stayed there himself. According to Heid, the appellant said he could not rent the room directly from the hotel because he had lost his identification. Heid also indicated that the appellant reimbursed him for the cost of the room.

         Hotel property manager Brittany Fowler handled the transaction with Heid. When Heid registered at the hotel, he signed a card acknowledging, among other things, that the hotel "reserve[d] the right to conduct random inspections of each room, regardless of whether a guest [was] present for any such inspection." The card further made clear that the guest's failure to comply with any federal, state or local laws or hotel rules could result in the hotel's asking the guest to "leave the premises." It also indicated the "acknowledg[ment]" that the occupant was "a transient guest of this lodging establishment . . . and registration . . . [did] not establish a permanent residence, household or dwelling unit." Finally, by signing the card, the registrant agreed that "no landlord/tenant relationship" was created and that "landlord/tenant statutes" were not applicable to the registrant's stay. The language on the card made no reference to a search of the room by law enforcement. The card also did not list names of any registered guests other than Heid.

         According to Fowler, hotel staff "try to get in[to] every room in the hotel at least once a week" to check for cleanliness, fire hazards, and anything else that might "pose a threat" to other hotel guests. She affirmed that this entry practice was "independent of housekeeping and maintenance."

         On January 16, 2015, while observing activity on the hotel's video surveillance equipment, Fowler noticed that six or seven people entered and almost immediately left Room 404, the room rented by Heid, in a thirty-minute period. Fowler had not seen Heid since he registered the previous day. She also did not recognize any of the people coming and going from Room 404 as registered guests, which "made [her] . . . suspicious." Fowler waited until she believed the room was vacant and entered it. Once inside, Fowler saw what appeared to be "a very large amount of marijuana" in plain view on an open shelf. She left the room and notified the police. Fowler testified that "from [her] experience working in the hotel, " she was acquainted with the appearance and packaging of illegal drugs, which was "why [she] was inclined to call the police."

         Dillon Brooks and Richard Young, patrol officers with the City of Fredericksburg Police Department, were dispatched to the hotel. When Brooks and Young arrived, Fowler told them about the heavy "foot traffic" and the suspected marijuana on the shelf in Room 404. Using her key, Fowler opened the door to the room, entered with the officers, and pointed to what appeared to be marijuana buds in plain view on the shelf. Also visible in the room were various articles of clothing and other personal items. The officers examined the substance on the shelf more closely and believed, like Fowler, that it was marijuana.

         While the officers were examining the suspected marijuana and looking at the other items in the room, Fowler opened a drawer in the kitchenette and saw what she thought were "more drugs." According to Fowler, the officers did not ask her to open the drawer and she did so "on [her] own accord" in order to "finish the room inspection" that she had originally entered to perform. Fowler called the officers' attention to the contents of the drawer. They saw "a large brick of a white to off-white substance in a plastic baggy, " which they believed to be "heroin in solid form." Young described the substance as "one of the larger bags . . . that [he had] seen personally of suspected heroin" in his fourteen years in law enforcement. Also in the drawer were plastic bags, a digital scale, and "other items that [they] would consider to be drug paraphernalia." These items were consistent with packaging of marijuana and various other illegal narcotics for distribution.

         Brooks and Young finished looking around the room but did not search it. They then left with Fowler. Brooks telephoned Detective Sergeant Devin Clarke, of the department's narcotics division, and described the circumstances that led to the discovery of the marijuana and heroin.

         Clarke arrived at the hotel a few minutes later, and the hotel manager opened the room for him. He photographed the suspected narcotics and the surrounding area and then left to obtain a search warrant. While present in the room, Clarke saw the marijuana, which he estimated was about half an ounce. In the open drawer, he saw the digital scale with visible residue, another small bag of marijuana, and "what appeared to be heroin in almost brick form[]." He also saw "indicia of packaging materials[, ] . . . numerous empty [convenience store] bags that had the corners ripped out." Additionally, there were "many lottery tickets, " which Clarke testified were used to package heroin. He explained that the waxy surface film on the tickets was particularly useful in "keep[ing the heroin] together." He noted that the suspected heroin "had not been ground down or powdered down for resale." Clarke also testified that a typical heroin user would possess the substance in a much smaller amount, one-tenth of a gram. He explained that a user would "not have a large quantity because once they start getting high[, ] they can't control it and they will die." According to Clarke, a "pretty bad user" would probably use "close to a gram a day." Finally, Clarke did not see any smoking devices or other items associated with using heroin in the room.[1] To the contrary, "[i]t appeared that they were packaging and selling drugs."

         Based on Fowler's assurance that she had electronically disabled the key card reader on the door to Room 404, Young returned to his patrol duties, and Brooks accompanied Fowler to the front desk to await the return of the room's occupants and the search warrant. While Brooks waited, Fowler monitored the video surveillance equipment. She saw three people enter Room 404 together despite her belief that she had disabled the key card reader. Once the room had been compromised, Officer Brooks went to the room and waited outside the door for backup.

         While Brooks waited, Donald Nicholson, one of the people inside the room, opened the door and discovered Brooks. The officer saw the appellant and a woman inside the room. Brooks identified himself as a police officer and ordered the three occupants to get on the ground. Despite Brooks' instructions, the appellant, aided by Nicholson, grabbed the suspected heroin and rushed into the bathroom with it. Brooks heard the sound of the toilet flushing. The appellant and Nicholson then returned to the room. Nicholson complied with Brooks' order to get on the ground, but the appellant grabbed the marijuana, ran into the bathroom, and also flushed it down the toilet before Brooks was able to activate his taser and restrain the appellant.

         Officers subsequently searched the hotel room pursuant to a warrant. In the course of the search, they found the digital scale, which bore heroin and cocaine residue. They also seized a plastic bag containing heroin residue and a baggy corner containing 0.3570 gram of cocaine. Additionally, they discovered two commercially labeled packets of the drug Suboxone. Finally, in a search of the appellant incident to arrest, Young found $2, 038 in cash.

         Prior to the appellant's trial, he sought to suppress the evidence. He contended that it was obtained as a result of an unreasonable search when the officers initially entered the hotel room without a search warrant. He also argued that the evidence obtained later, when they searched pursuant to a warrant, was tainted by the earlier search. The trial judge ruled that the appellant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the ...

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