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State v. Harper

Court of Appeals of Connecticut

August 2, 2016

STATE OF CONNECTICUT
v.
WILLIAM CONWAY HARPER

          Argued April 4, 2016

         Appeal from Superior Court, judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, geographical area number twenty, Holden, J.

          Richard Emanuel, for the appellant (defendant).

          Harry Weller, senior assistant state’s attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Richard J. Colangelo, Jr., state’s attorney, Katherine Donoghue, deputy assistant state’s attorney, and Ori Beeri, legal intern, for the appellee (state).

          DiPentima, C. J., and Sheldon and Bear, Js.

          OPINION

          SHELDON, J.

         The defendant, William Conway Harper, appeals from the judgment of conviction rendered against him after a court trial on charges of criminal trespass in the third degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-109 (a) and possession of less than one-half ounce of marijuana in violation of General Statutes § 21a-279a (a).[1] On appeal, the defendant claims (1) that the evidence was insufficient to support either of his challenged convictions and (2) that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress the marijuana seized from a vehicle in which he was a passenger upon which the latter conviction was based. We reverse the defendant’s conviction for criminal trespass in the third degree on the ground of insufficient evidence, but affirm his conviction for possession of marijuana upon concluding that the evidence at trial was sufficient to support that conviction and that the court properly denied his motion to suppress.

         After a pretrial hearing on the defendant’s motion to suppress, the trial court found the following facts. On the evening of July 13, 2012, Officers Julio Rodriguez and Steven Luciano of the Norwalk Police Department were working as members of a special services unit that patrolled Norwalk housing areas, looking for criminal activity such as narcotics transactions and trespassing. As part of their regular routine, the officers patrolled all of the housing projects in Norwalk due to numerous complaints by local residents about ‘‘intruders bringing in drugs, gangs, violence, and [a]ffecting the quality of their’’ lives.

         On July 13, 2012, at approximately 9 p.m., the officers entered the parking lot of a housing project at 16 School Street in Norwalk, which is a dead end, by making a left turn from the main driveway, then a quick right turn, which put them at the rear of the property between buildings five and one. They observed that ‘‘No Trespassing’’ signs were posted throughout the property. At the far end of the parking lot there was a dumpster, which was surrounded on three sides by a fence that bore a ‘‘No Trespassing’’ sign. The officers parked their marked police cruiser behind a Honda Accord that was parked next to the dumpster. Then they observed the defendant, who appeared to be startled by their presence, emerge from behind the dumpster and walk quickly and nervously to the Honda, with his head down, trying to avoid eye contact with the officers. He entered the passenger side of the vehicle.

         The officers then observed another male, Kyle Frei-tag, emerge from behind the dumpster and walk nervously to the Honda, also with his head down and trying to avoid eye contact with them, before entering the driver’s side of the Honda. After entering the vehicle, Freitag put it in reverse and tried to leave the area, but he was unable to do so because the police cruiser was parked immediately behind him.

         Luciano testified that, due to his frequent patrols of 16 School Street, he had become familiar with most of the residents of the property, but he did not recognize either of the men in the Honda as a resident. The officers ran the license plate of the Honda through the Department of Motor Vehicles’ database and discovered that the vehicle was not registered to anyone residing at 16 School Street. On that basis, aware of the constant complaints of residents about trespassers on the property, the officers exited their cruiser to determine what, if any, reason the two men had for being on the premises. While walking toward the Honda, the officers encountered Mary Horelick, a resident of 16 School Street, who told them that she did not know the men in the Honda, one of whom had just urinated on her fence.

         Upon nearing the Honda, however, the focus of the officers’ investigation changed when they smelled ‘‘the pungent strong odor of marijuana, ’’ coming from the vehicle. This finding led them to call in a canine unit to search the vehicle’s interior. Shortly thereafter, Officer Garrett Kruger and his dog, Kimbo, arrived on the scene and conducted a search of the Honda. The search revealed a bag of marijuana on the floor of the vehicle, near the front passenger seat, where the defendant had been sitting.[2] As a result of this discovery, the defendant was placed under arrest. Despite the officers’ original intentions when they first approached the Honda, they never questioned either the defendant or Freitag as to why they were at 16 School Street on the evening in question.

         After a trial to the court, the defendant was found guilty of criminal trespass in the third degree and sentenced to a term of ninety days incarceration, execution suspended, and one year of probation. The court also found the defendant guilty of possession of less than one-half ounce of marijuana and sentenced him on that charge to a fine of $150. This appeal followed. Additional facts will be set forth as they pertain to each of the defendant’s claims on appeal.

         I

         The defendant first claims that the evidence adduced at trial was insufficient to support either of his challenged convictions. ‘‘In [a defendant’s] challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence . . . [w]hether we review the findings of a trial court or the verdict of a jury, our underlying task is the same. . . . We first review the evidence presented at trial, construing it in the light most favorable to sustaining the facts expressly found by the trial court or impliedly found by the jury. We then decide whether, upon the facts thus established and the inferences reasonably drawn therefrom, the trial court or the jury could reasonably have concluded that the cumulative effect of the evidence established the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. . . . In assessing the defendant’s claim that the evidence against him was insufficient to establish his guilt . . . we must look to the trial court’s findings of fact. . . . [W]e give great deference to the findings of the trial court because of its function to weigh and interpret the evidence before it and to pass upon the credibility of witnesses. . . .

         ‘‘In evaluating evidence that could yield contrary inferences, the trier of fact is not required to accept as dispositive those inferences that are consistent with the defendant’s innocence. . . . The trier [of fact] may draw whatever inferences from the evidence or facts established by the evidence it deems to be reasonable and logical. . . . On appeal, we do not ask whether there is a reasonable view of the evidence that would support a reasonable hypothesis of innocence. We ask, instead, whether there is a reasonable view of the evidence that supports the [trier of fact’s] verdict of guilty.’’ (Citations omitted; internal ...


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