The Court of Appeals in Campbell v. U.S. decided on January 30, 2020, in essence affirmed the trial court’s ruling and convictions denying the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

Factually, Campbell was approached by a police officer in a middle of a night sitting in a stolen car, visibly drinking from an open container of alcohol (vodka bottle).  The critical factual element being that the car was parked in a private church parking lot.

Campbell was arrested for POCA (Possession of Open Container of Alcohol), and the ensuing search revealed that the car was stolen and thus was charged with theft in first degree, receiving stolen property and unauthorized use of vehicle.

At trial, the defense counsel filed a motion to suppress all evidence based on 4th Amendment violation arguing that the arrest for POCA was illegal as the vehicle was parked in a private lot beyond the scope of the POCA Statute.

The court denied the motion while improperly ruling on the legal issues and the defense counsel instead of preserving the record for appeal submitted on the record and Campbell was convicted on all counts.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that while the trial court was technically wrong in denying the motion as private property was not within the scope of the POCA Statute, because the officer’s mistaken belief was reasonable, the arrest and convictions will hold.

Generally, in order to demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must show:

  • That his counsel’s performance was deficient, and that
  • The deficiencies prejudiced the defense.

Deficiencies is defined as: trial counsel must have made errors so serious that as to violate basic functioning as the defense counsel guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment.

Prejudice is defined as but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Moreover, a claim of deficiency in litigating a Fourth Amendment motion competently must show that:

  1. The Fourth Amendment claim would have been meritorious, and
  2. There is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different absent deficiencies in the representation excluding inculpatory evidence.

Here, the Court of Appeals held that the officer’s mistake that the grassy median between the two private parking lots came within the reach of the POCA statute —  was a reasonable mistake.  Moreover, if POCA arrest was illegal, the Officer could have legally arrested Campbell for DUI as he was behind the wheels while drinking even though car was parked.

The United States Supreme Court has held that ambiguous statutory language coupled with the lack of precedent would render legal an otherwise illegal stop as officer’s conduct would be deemed to be objectively reasonable.

Applying the same principle here, the officer’s mistaken belief was objectively reasonable and that his action in arresting Mr. Campbell was reasonable, albeit mistaken.  A Rather convoluted ruling in that the police conduct was premised on a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous statutory language not yet clarified.

The ruling begs the question that if the illegality of the arrest was pressed at trial and preserved for appeal, would the Court have ruled differently as the legal reasoning proffered for the ruling is tenuous at best.

Refer to our Washington DC Criminal Lawyer page for more details on this subject.

Categories: Criminal Defense.