BERLIN — A Berlin man was denied a new trial and will serve a 14-year prison term for possession with intent to distribute heroin after the state Court of Special Appeals last week denied his appeal of the June 2017 conviction.
On Aug. 7, 2016, Ryan Steck, now 37, of Berlin, was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over for a routine traffic stop in downtown Ocean City. During the stop, however, a K-9 unit was requested to conduct a probable cause scan on the vehicle and its occupants, which ultimately turned up 1,000 bags of heroin. During his subsequent arrest, Steck was found in possession of a large quantity of cocaine and additional charges were tacked on.
In August 2017, Steck was found guilty of possession with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. However, Steck appealed the convictions, asserting the Circuit Court erred when it denied a motion to dismiss the case prior to trial and also erred on two subsequent motions to suppress the seizure of the heroin during the traffic stop. Last week, the state’s Court of Special Appeals denied Steck’s appeals and upheld the convictions meted out by the Circuit Court.
Early in the morning on Aug. 7, 2016, an Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officer patrolling in the area of 1st Street and St. Louis Avenue observed a vehicle stop at a stop sign before making a left turn across a travel lane in front of a resort taxi. The driver’s action caused the taxi driver to slam on the vehicle’s brakes in order to avoid a collision, according to court documents.
The OCPD bicycle officer broadcasted a description of the vehicle, which was stopped by a different officer. The bicycle officer arrived on the scene of the stop about three or four minutes later, according to court documents. Steck was seated in the back seat, with a driver and another passenger in the front seat. The initial officer began writing a written citation for the driver of the illegal lane change and requested a K-9 unit respond to the scene. According to court documents, the officer testified at trial he requested a K-9 unit because of because of some of the furtive actions of the occupants during the stop and because of the actions of the driver prior to the stop.
For example, the officer testified at trial the vehicle finally stopped three blocks after the traffic stop was initiated. When the officer approached the vehicle, the occupants were moving there hands around inside the vehicle and looking back and forth at each other and the officer, according to court documents.
When the K-9 unit arrived, the handler and the dog conducted a scan of the vehicle. The handler testified at trial the canine alerted positively for the presence of narcotics in two areas, including near the rear passenger area and occupants themselves, who by then were out of the vehicle and seated on a curb nearby.
An OCPD detective at that point asked Steck if he was in possession of any drugs or illegal weapons and Steck replied he had a “blunt” in his pocket before retrieving a plastic baggie of suspected marijuana from his pocket. A subsequent probable cause search of the vehicle revealed 1,000 bags of what proved to be heroin.
Prior to trial, Steck filed two motions to suppress the seizure of the heroin, both of which were denied. One of the motions asserted the traffic stop from the beginning was unlawful because no traffic violation had occurred, and that everything that happened after the stop was moot for that reason. The second motion to suppress asserted the traffic stop was unnecessarily prolonged by the time it took the initial bicycle officer to arrive on the scene and the apparent lag in time for the K-9 unit to arrive.
In both cases, the appeals court voted to uphold the denial of the two motions to suppress the seizure of heroin. In the former case, the appeals court agreed the OCPD officer’s decision to initiate a traffic stop was valid because the driver’s action caused a taxi to slam on its brakes to avoid a collision. In terms of the second motion to suppress, the appeals court agreed the initial officer was well within the acceptable time frame to arrive on the scene and begin writing the citation, while the arrival of the K-9 unit was also timely and fell within the time the initial officer was writing the citation.
In addition, prior to trial Steck through his attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case altogether, asserting the state had wrongly destroyed evidence, in this case the recordings of the communications of the OCPD officers involved in the traffic stop and later the K-9 search. The trial court denied the motion and the appeals court upheld that denial with the opinion released last week.
During the presentation of the motion, it came to light the OCPD and most law enforcement agencies store and keep recordings for only 90 days after an incident or arrest. In this case, the recordings requested by the defense counsel were destroyed prior to trial. In its opinion, the appeals court essentially asserted normal protocol had been observed and the requested recordings held little probative value anyway in the larger context of the case.