No Motion to Suppress?

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In Mahrt v. Beard, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a defendant may bring a pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel claim when counsel’s failure to argue a motion to suppress the fruits of a search prevents the defendant from making an informed choice whether to plead guilty.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On September 3, 2012, Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to a residence in Petaluma, California. A neighbor had reported that a male and female subject were arguing over a gun. The Defendant Gregory Mahrt was living in a garage on the property that had been converted into a room. As the deputies approached the property, Mahrt walked out and met them at the front gate. The deputies detained Mahrt and asked about the argument, the gun and whether anyone else was inside the residence.

Mr. Mahrt was “uncooperative.” The deputies conducted a “protective sweep” of Mahrt’s room in the garage. As the deputies approached the garage, Mahrt began yelling that he did not want the officers to enter his room. According to the report, the deputies observed ammunition cans, ammunition, and what appeared to be an AR-15 Rifle (later determined to be a replica).

The deputies subsequently learned that Mahrt had a prior felony conviction and arrested him for being a felon in possession of ammunition. The deputies then asked Mahrt for permission to search his room.

This is where the facts differ: according to police reports, Mr. Mahrt consented. The deputies conducted a second search of the room. They found additional ammunition, rifle magazines, and two firearms. According to Mahrt, however, he did not consent to the search.

On September 5, 2012, the State of California charged Mahrt with having been a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition in violation of California Penal Code § 29800(a)(1) and § 30305(a)(1). Mahrt believed that the warrantless search (or searches) of the garage was (or were) illegal. However, neither of the two public defenders who represented him at the trial court level moved to suppress the firearms and ammunition recovered from his room.

Nevertheless, despite his defense counsel’s failure to move to suppress, Mahrt pleaded guilty to both charges and received a six-year sentence. He appealed. On appeal, Mahrt’s appointed counsel did not raise any issues. Instead, his counsel filed a Wende brief, the California analogue to an Anders brief. A Wende brief is filed when a California appellate attorney concludes that an appeal would be frivolous.  On November 27, 2013, the California Court of Appeal affirmed Mahrt’s conviction.

On April 11, 2014, Mahrt filed a federal habeas petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). The petition alleged that Mahrt’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel was violated by his trial counsels’ failure to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition found in his room. A magistrate judge, sitting by consent, granted Mahrt’s petition. The State timely appealed.

ANALYSIS & CONCLUSION

  1. The Defendant May Proceed With a Pre-Plea Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Claim.

The 9th Circuit  reasoned that Mahrt’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, premised upon a failure to file a motion to suppress, is squarely within this line of case discussing pre-plea ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to file a motion to suppress:

“The State’s entire case against Mahrt depended on its ability to introduce into evidence the firearms and ammunition found in his room. If the deputies unconstitutionally searched Mahrt’s home, counsel’s failure to move to suppress the fruits of that search prevented Mahrt from making the informed choice to which he was entitled.”

    2. Mahrt’s Counsel Was Ineffective.

The Court held that Mahrt’s counsel was ineffective in failing to move to suppress the firearms and ammunition. It reasoned that there was at least a chance that such a motion would have succeeded. First, there was a clear conflict in the available evidence. Second, a police officer’s report mischaracterized the first search as a “protective sweep.”

The Court reasoned that a warrantless protective search is permitted under Maryland v. Buie, based on the “interest of the officers in taking steps to assure themselves that the house in which a suspect is being, or has just been, arrested is not harboring other persons who are dangerous and who could unexpectedly launch an attack.” Here, Mahrt was being detained by the deputies, and they had no reason to suspect that there was some other person inside the residence who could pose a danger to themselves or to others. Consequently, the Court reasoned that defense counsel should have filed and argued a motion to suppress the search of Maert’s premises.

My opinion? It’s very importnant to retain qualified defense counsel in search and seizure cases such as this. Here, the defendant accepted a plea bargain on the advice of defense counsel who, according to the court, failed to argue motions to suppress. Pretrial motions are essential. It’s imperative to hire defense counsel who know the law and argue it effectively. Contact my office if you, a friend or family matter face criminal charges where a search was involved.