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Summary and Analysis of Published Opinion of the Court of Appeals, January 26, 2021

| Jan 27, 2021 | The Virginia Appellate Lawyer’s Court of Appeals of Virginia Blog |

Shaka Markel Long v. Commonwealth of VirginiaThe lone published opinion from the Court of Appeals this week – the first in two weeks – comes from the Circuit Court of York County and involves convictions for multiple drug offenses.  The issue is one common to drug cases: when should the trial court permit hearsay evidence of a confidential informant to be received.  The testimony in question was offered at a hearing to suppress the evidence recovered following a “stop out” of a vehicle identified by the informant as being involved in drug trafficking that was known to be in a certain location.  And what, pray tell, is a “stop out”?  You may well ask, because a search of the entire federal and state case law did not reveal a single instance of the use of this term in the manner that it was defined at the hearing by the sheriff’s investigator, who explained that “in my mind, I wanted them to make consensual contact with the suspicious occupied vehicle in the parking lot.”  Despite this being the investigator’s desire, the deputy who received the dispatch conducted a nonconsensual stop, a fact which the Commonwealth readily (and quite properly) conceded.

The investigator’s information from the confidential informant was that the vehicle, which she jointly owned with her daughter, was no longer in her possession, nor was it in the possession of her daughter who was, at that time, a guest at the iron-bar hotel.  The informant had initiated her communications with the investigator some while before being concerned that her daughter was involved in drug trafficking, or more precisely was on the receiving end of that market.  While Long was not identified as a person of interest by the informant, she was able to tell the investigator the location of the vehicle because she had installed a tracking device for that purpose.  She further indicated that the vehicle had come into the possession of its current occupant because of the daughter’s involvement in the aforementioned market.  The vehicle, which the informant “wanted back,” was then parked at a motel known to be a place where that market flourished.

The principal argument made by Long’s counsel at the hearing was that there was an inadequate foundation for permitting the investigator to testify as to what he had been told by the informant, arguing, among other things, that in requesting the stop out the investigator failed to convey to the deputy who conducted the stop the basis for doing so.  Long relied on Giles v. Commonwealth, 32 Va. App. 519 (2000), for the proposition that an informant’s information must exhibit sufficient indicia of reliability to support the reasonable suspicion to conduct a stop.  The Court of Appeals, however, noted that Giles relates to the quality of the evidence, rather than its admissibility – which was the basis of the objection in the circuit court.  Moreover, the Court found that had the objection been to the reliability of the evidence, “the record before us leaves no doubt that the information [the investigator] obtained from [the informant] was, in fact, reliable.”

Long next argued that even if the investigator who requested the stop out had a reasonable basis for suspecting that there was criminal activity afoot, he failed to communicate the basis for that suspicion to the deputy who conducted the stop, and that the information should not be imputed to him under the “collective knowledge” doctrine.  Alas, the opinion does not give a significant amount of detail as to the basis for this argument, which the Court summarily dismisses as being “without merit,” noting that this is the exact circumstance under which the doctrine is intended to be applied.  The fact that the instructing investigator’s intention was for the stop to be consensual does not alter the Court’s analysis because the issue of law is not whether the investigator had a subjective belief that a nonconsensual stop would have been proper, but an objective analysis of the facts applied to the law.

So, what have we learned from Long?  Three things come immediately to mind.  First is the investigator’s use of the term “stop out,” which the Court of Appeals indicated in a parting footnote was probably not understood by the deputy to mean what the investigator had intended, will probably not be making its way into the legal lexicon.  This naturally raises the question of what the Court would have done if the instruction had been clear that the deputy should attempt a consensual encounter.  I offer the opinion that this would have made a significant difference because then the deputy would have understood that the investigator did not believe he had sufficient grounds to conduct a non-consensual stop.  Of course, had that been the case, it is likely the deputy would not have conducted the stop in the manner he did.

The second thing of note is a solid practice point for all litigants – on appeal or otherwise – and that it the wisdom of conceding a point you cannot win.  The Commonwealth saw that there was no point in trying to assert that the deputy had conducted a consensual stop as the evidence plainly showed that he had through various means asserted his authority in detaining both vehicle and suspect.  By conceding this point, the Commonwealth was able to accomplish two things in that it was not required to waste its words or the Court’s time on a fruitless argument and it likewise gained credibility with the Court for its argument that the stop, though not consensual, was nonetheless lawful.

And the third thing of note in this opinion?  Don’t cross mama – especially if she knows how to use a GPS tracker.