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Potts v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

December 30, 2019

ROBERT POTTS, Defendant Below, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: October 11, 2019

          Court Below-Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. ID No. 1709011232 (N)

          Before VALIHURA, VAUGHN, and TRAYNOR, Justices.

          ORDER

          Karen L. Valihura Justice.

         Upon careful consideration of the parties' briefs and the record below, it appears to the Court that:

         (1) In 2018, a Superior Court jury found the appellant, Robert Potts, guilty of possession of a firearm by a person prohibited ("PFBPP"), possession of ammunition by a person prohibited ("PABPP"), carrying a concealed deadly weapon ("CCDW"), drug dealing, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony ("PFDCF"). On appeal, Potts claims that the Superior Court erroneously denied his suppression motion. We find no error and affirm.

         (2) At approximately 10:30 p.m. on September 16, 2017, Wilmington Police Detective Matthew Rosaio was on routine patrol in an unmarked police vehicle in the City of Wilmington. As he waited at the red light controlling the intersection of Seventh and Washington Streets, Detective Rosaio observed a black Chrysler cross his line of sight, heading southbound on Washington Street. Detective Rosaio noted that the vehicle's registration plate did not appear to be illuminated as required by Delaware law.[1] Detective Rosaio made a right-hand turn onto Washington Street and began following the Chrysler. After Detective Rosaio confirmed that the Chrysler's tail lamp was not illuminated, he stopped the vehicle.

         (3) As Detective Rosaio approached the stopped car, the driver- later identified as Potts-thrust his head out of the driver's side window and shouted something to the effect of, "Why are you pulling me over?" Detective Rosaio advised Potts that he had stopped Potts for an equipment violation. Potts responded that he could not be detained "for that." After Detective Rosaio asked Potts for his license, registration, and proof of insurance, Potts stated he "had all that" and reached into the back seat area toward a duffle bag that lay on the floorboard. Potts pulled the opaque bag into his lap and opened it. As Potts reached into the bag-and before he handed Detective Rosaio any identifying documentation-Detective Rosaio asked if Potts had a weapon on him. Potts answered in the affirmative and stated that he was going to hand the weapon to Detective Rosaio. Detective Rosaio ultimately seized Potts' weapon as well as a large quantity of heroin from the vehicle.

         (4) Potts was thereafter indicted by a Superior Court grand jury for PFBPP, PABPP, CCDW, drug dealing, PFDCF, illegal possession of a controlled substance, and resisting arrest. Potts moved to suppress the evidence seized from his vehicle on the grounds that Detective Rosaio's inquiry regarding the presence of weapons in the vehicle improperly exceeded the scope of the traffic stop.

         (5) At a suppression hearing held on February 2, 2018, the Superior Court heard testimony from Detective Rosaio and Potts. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Superior Court issued an oral ruling denying Potts' motion. Although Potts had presented some evidence that the vehicle's tail lamp had been functioning three weeks earlier when it was inspected at the Division of Motor Vehicles, the trial judge found Detective Rosaio's testimony that the vehicle's registration plate was not illuminated to be credible. The trial judge noted that Detective Rosaio had later inspected the Chrysler and found that the tail lamp was damaged, and documented this damage in a supplemental police report. Accordingly, the trial judge found that the officer had articulated probable cause for stopping the vehicle because the vehicle's registration plate was not illuminated.[2] The trial judge next found that, whether Detective Rosaio's question about Potts' possession of a weapon constituted routine questioning or not, the question was justified by the totality of the circumstances.

         (6) The case proceeded to a jury trial. Prior to trial, the State dismissed the charge of illegal possession of a controlled substance and, during the trial, the Superior Court granted Potts' motion to dismiss the resisting arrest charge. The jury found Potts guilty of the remaining charges and he was sentenced to an aggregate of twelve years of Level V incarceration, followed by decreasing levels of supervision. This appeal followed.

         (7) On appeal, Potts claims the Superior Court erroneously denied his suppression motion for a number of reasons. First, Potts claims that the Superior Court abused its discretion in denying the motion to suppress because: (i) the traffic stop was pretextual; (ii) the evidence seized from the search incident to his arrest for resisting arrest should have been suppressed because the Superior Court ultimately dismissed the resisting arrest charge; and (iii) Detective Rosaio's questioning exceeded the scope of routine questioning and was not justified by the circumstances. Second, Potts argues the Superior Court abused its discretion by ignoring the ambiguous language of 21 Del. C. § 4334 and because the uncontradicted evidence presented below established that Potts' vehicle's tail lamp was functional on September 16, 2017. Third, Potts contends that the Superior Court erred in ignoring the definition of "routine questioning" in 11 Del. C. § 1902.[3]

         (8) This Court generally reviews a trial court's denial of a motion to suppress evidence for abuse of discretion.[4] To the extent that the claim of error is for an alleged violation of a constitutional right, we conduct a de novo review.[5] We will not, however, disturb a trial court's factual findings absent clear error.[6]

         (9) Potts' arguments are unavailing. We will not review Potts' claim that the language of 21 Del. C. § 4334 is ambiguous or his claim that the Superior Court ignored 11 Del. C. ยง 1902 when considering ...


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