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State v. Dobbins

Superior Court of Maine, Aroostook

May 29, 2017



         Before the Court is Defendant Dobbins' Motion to Suppress dated January 30, 2017. Dobbins seeks suppression of all evidence obtained from a search of Dobbins' home initiated on or about March 4, 2015.[1]Hearing was held on Defendant's motion on May 19, 2017 at which testimony was received from Assistant District Attorney John Pluto of the Aroostook County District Attorneys Office and Detective Mitchell of the Maine State Police. The primary issue raised by Defendant's motion is whether the bail conditions search initiated by the police on March 4, 2015 was legal. Based upon the evidence presented and review of applicable law, the court makes the following findings.


         On March 1, 2015 Keith Suitter was found dead in his home on Hillview Avenue in Houlton. The cause of death appeared to be a stabbing and blunt force trauma prompting a homicide investigation. On March 4, 2015, Detective Mitchell participated in an interview of Defendant Dobbins. The interview commenced at Dobbins home but the majority of it was conducted at the Maine State Police barracks in Houlton. Through the course of the interview of Dobbins, Detective Mitchell learned that Dobbins was on bail for aggravated assault, which had conditions of no use or possession of alcohol or drugs or dangerous weapons, and random searches at any time without articulable suspicion or probable cause. (Def s. Ex. 1; State's Ex. 3 and 5). And through the course of the interview, Dobbins told Detective Mitchell that he had smoked marijuana in the last week. [State's Ex. 5). Dobbins also told Detective Mitchell that in the early evening of March 1, 2015 his mother had dropped he and Sam Geary off on Hillview Avenue near where the victim Suitter lived, that they walked by his home, and at some point while in the area heard people talking, possibly some yelling. (Id.). In addition, Dobbins told the detective that he had not told his mother the details of what he was planning to do out in that area or who he was planning to meet, a Josh Pike, giving Detective Mitchell the impression that it was something less than legal. And Dobbins told Detective Mitchell that after his meeting Pike and others he and Geary were dropped off near Reservoir Hill, where they called Dobbin's father for a ride. (Id.). Dobbins also told Detective Mitchell he knew Keith Suitter. (Id.)

         As the interview was being wrapped up, Detective Mitchell inquired of Dobbins if he would provide a DNA sample, but Dobbins declined. The officers then gave Dobbins a ride home. While driving to Dobbins' residence, the officers discussed completing a bail check, and asked Dobbin's what his thoughts were. Dobbins responded "That's fine." (State's Ex.5, p.162). Although a few moments later Detective Mitchell stated "'re obviously required to consent to search." (State's Ex. 5, p.164). Once at Dobbins' home, Detective Mitchell initiated the bail search and ultimately found in Dobbins' bedroom a folding knife with red brown stains at the hinge. The detective was also shown by Christie Dobbins the Defendant's trench coat which also had on it red brown stains. Detective Mitchell then ceased further activity and the detectives began the process of securing the scene and obtaining a search warrant.

         Although at the time of the bail search Detective Mitchell himself may not have been aware of all other details of the investigation, by that time there was a significant amount of evidentiary information within the collective knowledge of the police. (See State's Ex 4, Search Warrant Affidavit). In summary, prior to conducting the bail search, police had within their knowledge evidence of a homicide, likely involving a knife and blunt instrument, with evidence of blood spatter and transfer. The assailant(s) had likely left in Suitter's pickup until it went off the road on Hillview Avenue. Based on evidence gathered at the scene of the pickup, police had knowledge of two sets of footprints in the snow leaving from the pickup, hence two subjects involved, and there was red brown stain in the interior. Hence, there was likely blood transfer from Suitter at the homicide scene onto the assailants then onto the pickup interior. Defendant Dobbins own mother placed him in the vicinity of the scene of the homicide, her telling police she gave Defendant Dobbins and Geary a ride and dropped them off near 412 Hillview Avenue, and her son telling her they had heard yelling and screaming coming from Suitter's home. Dobbins mother also provided details of her husband later picking them up in their vehicle, the same vehicle seen headed south on Hillview Avenue on store surveillance video footage taken at around 7:44 pm. Lastly Defendant's mother provided a description of certain clothing worn by Dobbins and Geary matching the description given by citizen witnesses. And the citizen witnesses placed two males wearing clothing similar to that as described by Christie Dobbins walking on Hillview Avenue in the vicinity of Suitter's abandoned pickup, one witness thinking the two males were walking to get help for the pickup.

         As for Dobbins' bail conditions, on September 12, 2014 Dobbins had his initial in-custody appearance for the charge of Aggravated Assault, Class B. At the in-custody proceeding, Dobbins was represented by Lawyer of the Day, Jeff Pickering. By the time of the hearing, the Court had been provided a copy of the complaint, and the probable cause affidavit with bail recommendations. (State's Ex.1). The complaint brought against Dobbins indicated he was charged with aggravated assault with the use of a dangerous weapon, a baseball bat. (Id.). The Bail Recommendation made by the State was: Surety Bond of $5, 000 or cash $500. Release Conditions: No contact with James Schneider, Susan Lannon, Christopher Richardson, Devon Hannigan, and ]acoby Suitter; no possession or use of alcohol or drugs; submit to random search and testing; no possession of weapons; submit to random search for weapons. (Id.).

         Justice Hunter presided at the initial appearance. At the hearing Justice Hunter advised Dobbins of the charge, explained he would not be taking a plea as it was a felony, and described for him the Grand Jury process. (Defendant's Ex. 1). Attorney Pickering who was present as lawyer of the day, was appointed to represent Dobbins going forward. When addressing the issue of bail, Justice Hunter inquired " the question of bail, Mr. Pickering. And have you had a chance to consider the State's recommendation here?" (Id. at p. 6, 1. 6-8). Attorney Pickering responded "Yes", and then relayed portions of a discussion he had recently had with the prosecutor assigned to the case regarding one particular witnesses named in the no contact conditions. (Id.). As the hearing was concluding ADA Pluto inquired "And the alcohol and drug conditions will be in place?" (Id. at p. 8, 1. 2-3). Justice Hunter responded "You're right, all of those requirements." (Id. at 1. 4). None of the other conditions were specifically discussed but Justice Hunter did suggest that Attorney Pickering have a discussion about the compliance with bail conditions with Mr. Dobbins. (Id. p. 8, 1.14-15). Ultimately, on September 12, 2014 Defendant Dobbins was bailed and he signed the Bail Bond with the surety amount and release conditions set as originally requested by the State. (Defendant's Ex. 2).


         In his motion Dobbins challenges the lawfulness of the initial bail check of Dobbins' home which was conducted without a warrant, and further asserts that the search warrant subsequently issued is tainted by the initial bail search, and therefore seeks suppression and exclusion of all evidence obtained from both searches.

         l. Was the Bail Search Legal?

         The validity of a bail search based on a bail condition of random search has previously been addressed by our Law Court. In State v. Wiring, 741 A.2d 1065 (Me. 1999) the defendant had been arrested on drug charges and was released on bail with a condition of random searches of his person, residence and vehicle. His home was subsequently searched without a warrant and without evidence of wrongdoing at which time drugs were found, leading to additional drug related charges, / 1066. Defendant's motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the warrantless search of his home was denied. On appeal, the Law Court acknowledged that the Maine Bail Code allows as a requirement for pre-conviction release a condition that the defendant refrain from the possession of firearms, alcohol or drugs and concluded that a bail condition of random searches is not prohibited by the Maine Bail Code. 741 A.2d at 1070-1071. In addition, the Law Court ruled that by signing the bail bond the defendant sufficiently manifested his voluntary consent to the search of his home. Id. at 1068. In reaching its decision, the Law Court carefully considered whether bail conditions of random searches violate Fourth Amendment protections and struck the balance that such a condition authorizing random searches can only meet Fourth Amendment scrutiny if the condition is reasonable under all of the circumstances. Id. at 1073. But when a judicial officer imposes a random search condition it can be assumed, in the absence of the evidence to the contrary, that the condition is reasonable. Id. The burden is always on the State to show consent to a search, but the State satisfies that burden by proving the existence of a bail condition; the burden of presenting evidence then shifts to the defendant to show the conditions are unreasonable. Id. [2]

         Dobbins however makes his challenges to the warrantless bail search upon reliance of United States v. Scott, 450. F.2d 863, (Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, 2006). In that case the court held that a drug test of the defendant without probable cause did not pass constitutional muster despite a bail order for such random tests, and further ordered the subsequent warrantless search of the house without probable cause other than that provided by the improper drug test results was also invalid. In Scott, the court initiated its analysis with the predicate that Scott's consent to search (vis-a vis the bail agreement with conditions) is only valid if the search in question, taking the fact of consent into account, was reasonable. Mat 868. The court noted that Fourth Amendment reasonableness means a search is supported by probable cause, but may relax these needs when "special needs" exist. Id. In short, "special needs" must be a goal or need distinguishable from the general interest of crime control. Id. at 869. The court then conducted a thorough review of whether or not the government had established the State of Nevada had special needs for drug-testing release conditions, and found it had not established such special needs.

         The Ninth Circuit's ruling based on that analysis is of marginal help to the case at hand, in which Maine has a much different Bail Code, with four factors to consider in setting conditions of release. See Fn. 1, and 15, MRSA §1026(3)(A). The type of analysis done by the Scott court applied to Maine's Bail Code could lead to a different result. Under Maine's Bail Code, objectives or goals which are to be considered when setting bail conditions include ensuring the appearance of the defendant, ensuring the defendant will refrain from any new criminal conduct, ensuring the integrity of the judicial process and ensuring safety of others in the community. See 15, MRSA §1002 and §1026. In total, these goals and objectives are reasonable and broader than the only a goal of criminal control.

         The court in Scott also reviewed whether the search was reasonable under a more general "totality of circumstances" approach. Scott at pp. 872-874. In this analysis, the court reviewed the balance of intrusion upon an individual's privacy with promotion of legitimate governmental interests, and made the comparison of probationers versus those on pre-conviction bail. Ultimately, the Scott court found that.... A search of Scott or his house ...

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