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People v. Davis

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

November 22, 2017

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Respondent,
v.
CHRISTOPHER T. DAVIS, Appellant.

          Calendar Date: October 13, 2017

          Mitch Kessler, Cohoes, for appellant, and appellant pro se.

          Stephen K. Cornwell Jr., District Attorney, Binghamton (Torrance L. Schmitz of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: Peters, P.J., Garry, Devine, Clark and Aarons, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          PETERS, P.J.

         Appeal from a judgment of the County Court of Broome County (Smith, J.), rendered January 2, 2015, upon a verdict convicting defendant of the crimes of robbery in the first degree, murder in the second degree (two counts) and murder in the first degree.

         On the afternoon of July 8, 2013, the bludgeoned body of Patricia LaCaprara was found on the kitchen floor of her first floor apartment located at 36 Brown Street in the Village of Johnson City, Broome County. The apartment was in a state of disarray, with dresser drawers opened and ransacked, the mattress pushed off of its box spring and items of personal property broken or strewn across the floor. The victim had sustained various wounds throughout her body, including multiple fractures to her facial bones and skull, stab wounds to her face and neck and over a dozen rib fractures, and forensic evidence indicated that she had died as a result of multiple blunt traumatic injuries to her head.

         Defendant, the victim's upstairs neighbor, was subsequently arrested and charged by indictment with murder in the first degree, two counts of murder in the second degree and robbery in the first degree. He moved to suppress incriminating statements he made to police and, after a hearing, County Court denied the motion. A jury trial ensued, at the conclusion of which defendant was found guilty on all counts. County Court thereafter imposed concurrent prison terms of life without the possibility of parole for the conviction of murder in the first degree, 25 years to life for each of the murder in the second degree convictions and 25 years for the robbery conviction. Defendant appeals.

         Defendant claims that statements he made to police following his arrest should have been suppressed as the product of an earlier unlawful detention and warrantless search of his vehicle. The relevant facts as they relate to this issue are not in dispute. Approximately two hours before the victim's body was discovered, Richard Merrell, a deputy with the Broome County Sheriff's Office, was dispatched to an area known as Aqua Terra Park in response to a parking complaint. While Merrell was running the licence plates of the two cars parked there, which included a white Toyota Camry, defendant emerged from an area of thick brush waving his hands and walking very quickly towards Merrell. Unable to discern what was wrong, Merrell left his vehicle and approached defendant. Defendant - who was wearing a tank top, shorts and flip flops and was muddy and wet - informed Merrell that he had fallen and dropped his wallet and keys in the area from where he had emerged. When asked what he was doing in the area, defendant responded that he was looking for a fishing spot. In response to further questioning, defendant indicated that the Camry had been rented by his daughter, who was staying at the Comfort Inn Suites in the Town of Vestal, Broome County. Merrell left defendant in the parking area and proceeded to investigate the area from which defendant had emerged. Merrell located a path leading to the bank of a pond, where he encountered a second male who identified himself as defendant's nephew. After this individual's explanation for their presence in the area did not comport with that given by defendant, Merrell asked him to empty his pockets. From his pockets, this individual produced a set of car keys and a pack of cigarettes that contained a marihuana "roach." Merrell also noticed a second set of clothing in the area where the male was sitting, which Merrell had him gather up before the two returned to the parking area.

         Upon returning to parking area, Merrell asked for and obtained defendant's consent to search the vehicle. During the ensuing search, Merrell discovered, among other things, a ball-peen hammer, a woman's wallet and change purse, and a driver's license and shopping card bearing the name of Patricia LaCaprara. When Merrell asked who Patricia LaCaprara was, defendant responded that he did not know and reiterated that his daughter had rented the car. Merrell did not seize any of the items that he discovered and, after directing the male to discard the marihuana roach, sent the two men on their way.

         After leaving the scene, Merrell attempted to verify the information that he had received and learned that the male he had located by the pond falsely identified himself, that his true name was Zachary Franks and that there was an active warrant out for his arrest. When Merrell proceeded to the home addresses that had been provided by defendant and Franks, both proved to be false. Merrell then traveled to the Comfort Inn Suites at which defendant had indicated his daughter was staying, where he learned that she had just checked out with two men matching the descriptions of defendant and Franks and that she had provided an address of 36 Brown Street. Upon arriving at that address, Merrell observed numerous police vehicles in the vicinity and, after speaking with the supervising detective, learned for the first time that the victim had been murdered at that location earlier in the day. Merrell relayed his interactions with defendant and Franks to the investigating officers and, several hours later, police apprehended and arrested defendant. While being transported to the police department to be interviewed, defendant stated, "I was going to turn myself in. I was going to come down and talk to you." When one of the officers in the vehicle asked defendant what he meant, defendant responded, "[M]y nephew... [was] saying I did some bad things." Once at the station, defendant was advised of his Miranda rights and ultimately invoked his right to counsel.

         Merrell's initial questioning of defendant was justified and is not challenged. Defendant's emergence from a dense, swampy area of the park and his erratic behavior and somewhat bizarre appearance provided an objective, credible reason for Merrell to ask general questions concerning defendant's identity, address and the purpose of his presence in the area and to request that he stand by momentarily while he investigated the situation (see People v Hollman, 79 N.Y.2d 181, 190 [1992]; People v Pirillo, 78 A.D.3d 1424, 1426 [2010]; People v Leiva, 33 A.D.3d 1021, 1022 [2006]; People v Moyaho, 12 A.D.3d 692, 693 [2004], lv denied 4 N.Y.3d 766');">4 N.Y.3d 766 [2005]; People v Wright, 8 A.D.3d 304, 306 [2004]). The inconsistent explanations given by defendant and Franks regarding their presence at the location, the fact that Franks had in his possession the car keys that defendant claimed to have just dropped in the swampy area and the discovery of marihuana in Franks' possession gave rise to a founded suspicion that criminality was afoot (see People v Smith, 137 A.D.3d 442, 442-443 [2016], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 1139');">27 N.Y.3d 1139 [2016]; People v Brown, 308 A.D.2d 398, 398 [2003], lvs denied 1 N.Y.3d 625, 595 [2004]). Given that founded suspicion, Merrell was authorized to inquire whether there were any additional drugs in the vehicle (see People v Cavanagh, 97 A.D.3d 980, 981 [2012], lv denied 19 N.Y.3d 1101');">19 N.Y.3d 1101 [2012]; People v Lowe, 79 A.D.3d 1676, 1677 [2010], lv denied 16 N.Y.3d 833');">16 N.Y.3d 833 [2011]) and to ask defendant for his consent to search it (see People v Dunbar, 5 N.Y.3d 834, 835 [2005]; People v Hollman, 79 N.Y.2d at 191-192; People v Whalen, 101 A.D.3d 1167, 1168 [2012], lv denied 20 N.Y.3d 1105');">20 N.Y.3d 1105 [2013]).

         Contrary to defendant's claims, Merrell's conduct during the course of the inquiry did not elevate the encounter to a seizure requiring reasonable suspicion (see generally People v Bora, 83 N.Y.2d 531, 535-536 [1994]; People v De Bour, 40 N.Y.2d 210, 216 [1976]). It was defendant, not the police, that initiated the encounter, the atmosphere was noncoercive, the questioning was investigatory rather than accusatory, there was no display of force and neither defendant nor Franks were physically restrained at any point. Indeed, after the justification for searching the vehicle was exhausted, Merrell sent both defendant and Franks on their way. On this record, we cannot conclude that "a reasonable person would have believed, under the circumstances, that the officer's conduct was a significant limitation on his or her freedom" (People v Ocasio, 85 N.Y.2d 982, 984 [1995]; see People v Wojes, 306 A.D.2d 754, 756 [2003], lv denied 100 N.Y.2d 600');">100 N.Y.2d 600 [2003]).

         Hours later, the officers investigating the robbery and murder were briefed as to Merrell's interactions with defendant earlier that day. The pertinent facts and circumstances known to the police, taken as an integrated whole, were sufficient to support a reasonable belief that defendant had committed a crime and therefore provided probable cause to arrest him (see People v Hayes, 60 A.D.3d 1097, 1099-1100 [2009], lv denied12 N.Y.3d 925');">12 N.Y.3d 925 [2009]; People v Tillman, 57 A.D.3d 1021, 1022-1023 [2008]; People v Lewis, 287 A.D.2d 888, 889 [2001], lvs denied97 N.Y.2d 684');">97 N.Y.2d 684 [2001], 97 N.Y.2d 756');">97 N.Y.2d 756 [2002]). With regard to the statements made by defendant while in the patrol car, testimony at the suppression hearing supports County Court's determination that defendant's initial outburst was spontaneous and not in response to any interrogation (see People v Rabideau, 82 A.D.3d 1283, 1284 [2011], lv denied17 N.Y.3d 799');">17 N.Y.3d 799 [2011]; People v Scott, 47 A.D.3d 1016, 1019-1020 [2008], lv denied10 N.Y.3d 870');">10 N.Y.3d 870 [2008]; People v Porter, 35 A.D.3d 907, 908 [2006], lv denied 8 N.Y.3d 926 [2007]; People v Smith, 21 A.D.3d 587, 588 [2005], lv denied5 N.Y.3d 833');">5 N.Y.3d 833 [2005]). The officer's ensuing inquiry as to what defendant meant "was merely intended to clarify... defendant's spontaneous statement which immediately preceded it, and did not ...


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