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United States v. Baker, No. 12-6624

Decided: June 13, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia’s decision rejecting Baker’s motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence on the ground that his counsel was unconstitutionally ineffective.

On March 3, 2008, a police officer stopped a vehicle that had a broken taillight and an expired license plate. Mario Baker (“Baker”) was operating the vehicle and Dashawn Brown (“Brown”) was in the front passenger seat. Upon checking Baker’s driver’s license, the officer learned that he had an outstanding federal arrest warrant. He then summoned back-up and, upon another officer’s arrival, arrested Baker. Thereafter, the arresting officer turned Baker over to another officer and focused his attention on Brown. Upon the officer’s command, Brown exited the vehicle but then began to walk away. The officer then commanded Brown to put his hands on the vehicle and a search was performed, uncovering a handgun. Brown then attempted to reenter the vehicle, claiming that he wanted to retrieve his cellphone—which was on the passenger-side floorboard. A struggle ensued and the officer wrestled Brown to the ground, arresting him for possessing the firearm. He then searched Brown incident to the arrest, finding multiple narcotics, a large amount of cash, and a digital scale on his person. After securing Brown in the police car, the officer then searched the passenger compartment of Baker’s vehicle, where he found 20.6 grams of heroin, .24 grams of crack cocaine, 12.2 grams of methadone, and a burnt marijuana joint. He also found another handgun in the glove box. Based on the evidence uncovered during the search of the vehicle, Baker was convicted of various federal firearm and drug offenses. Although Baker’s lawyer filed several motions prior to trial, he never filed a suppression motion challenging the search of Baker’s vehicle. Following his conviction, Baker appealed to the Fourth Circuit. After Baker filed his opening brief, the day before the government filed its response brief, the Supreme Court decided Arizona v. Gant, which held that, under the Fourth Amendment, the “[p]olice may search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant’s arrest only if the arrestee is within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search or it is reasonable to believe the vehicle contains evidence of the offense of arrest.” Baker’s convictions and sentence were affirmed on August 7, 2009. At no point did Baker’s counsel argue that the search of Baker’s vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment under Gant. Baker, proceeding pro se, subsequently filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence, asserting four claims for relief—all of which the district court rejected—denying a certificate of appealability on all claims. The Fourth Circuit, however, granted a partial certificate of appealability to consider the question of whether Baker’s lawyer was ineffective in failing to raise a Gant argument on direct appeal.

On appeal, before conducting its analysis on Baker’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the Fourth Circuit addressed the Supreme Court’s decision in Gant and its effect upon searches incident to an arrest as it relates to vehicle searches. Importantly, the court noted that Gant left unaltered other exceptions that might authorize police to search a vehicle without a warrant even when an arrestee is secured beyond reaching distance of the passenger compartment and it is unreasonable to expect to find any evidence of the crime of arrest in the vehicle. Most relevant to this appeal was the so-called automobile exception, which permits a warrantless search of a vehicle when there is probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband or other evidence of criminal activity. Next, the court addressed Baker’s contention that his lawyer was unconstitutionally ineffective in failing to challenge the search of his vehicle under Gant on direct appeal. Under the first prong of the Strickland test, the Fourth Circuit found that Baker’s lawyer was not deficient in failing to challenge the evidence because the search was plainly justified under the automobile exception as there was probable cause to search the vehicle following the officer’s finding a gun, drugs, and a digital scale on Brown’s person. Lastly, the court rejected Baker’s argument under the second prong of Strickland, finding that the alleged deficiency did not prejudice Baker because the evidence obtained during the search was not subject to suppression, pursuant to the Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule’s good-faith exception, as the officers were following the law as it existed at the time the search was conducted.

Full Opinion

– W. Ryan Nichols