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Failure to object at trial does not waive evidentiary appeal, Md. high court says

Judge Steven B. Gould wrote the majority opinion in the 7-0 ruling. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Attention criminal defense attorneys: You do not lose your right to appeal the denial of a pretrial motion to suppress evidence if you decline to object to the introduction of that evidence at trial.

In a unanimous decision, Maryland’s top court ruled Thursday that the right to appeal after trial begins upon the pretrial denial. A defense lawyer, having lost the battle to keep the evidence from jurors, need not raise a certain-to-lose objection in front of the jury, the Court of Appeals stated.

However, the high court cautioned that an attorney’s “words or actions” beyond a mere refusal to object “could potentially result in a waiver” of the right to appeal.

The Court of Appeals’ 7-0 decision gives Luis Huggins’ counsel an opportunity to challenge the admission into evidence of the loaded handgun police found during a warrantless search of Huggins’ hotel room — and which was critical to his conviction for illegal gun possession and related crimes.

The Court of Special Appeals had denied defense counsel a chance to appeal the admission.

The intermediate court said Huggins’ attorney waived the right to appeal by stating at trial she had “no objection” to the prosecution’s introduction of the gun that she had earlier sought to keep from the jury as having been discovered in violation of Huggins’ constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

But the Court of Appeals said the refusal to object was not a waiver but likely defense counsel’s recognition that its effort to keep the evidence from the jury had already been rejected.

“We can perceive no strategic benefit to waiving the search and seizure issue in this context,” Judge Steven B. Gould wrote for the court. “The evidence recovered by the police from that search was the state’s case – with those items excluded, the state’s case would have been substantially, if not entirely gutted.”

The court added that defense attorneys may have strategic reasons for telling the court they have no objection to the introduction of evidence that they continue to maintain should be suppressed.  For example, as in Huggins’ case, counsel may have said “no objection” to “convey nonchalance” and “impress upon the jury that (counsel) was not concerned about the gun,” Gould wrote.

The court’s decision echoed arguments the Maryland Criminal Defense Attorneys’ Association made in a brief supporting Huggins’ position.

“When a defense attorney says ‘no objection’ at trial after the denial of a pretrial motion to suppress, that is an observation, not a waiver,” MCDAA told the high court. “In this context, ‘no objection’ means only that the defendant has no objection that he can raise at trial.”

According to court papers, police responded on Jan. 20, 2019 to a reported fight involving a gun in an Elkridge hotel room. The officers entered the room with a key provided by Warner Smith, who had been in the room with Huggins.

The officers searched for a gun and found a closed overnight bag, which they opened. Inside was a Glock 17 handgun loaded with a magazine holding four rounds of ammunition.

Huggins’ attorney sought to suppress the evidence, arguing that Smith lacked authority to consent to the police searching the hotel room, much less to opening the closed bag.

Howard County Circuit Judge Timothy J. McCrone denied the pretrial motion to suppress.

At trial, Huggins counsel stated “no objection” as the gun, magazine and ammunition were introduced into evidence. Huggins was found guilty of using a firearm in a violent crime, possessing a firearm after having been convicted of a violent crime, illegal possession of ammunition and first-degree assault.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the convictions, saying Huggins’ counsel had waived the right to appeal the pretrial suppression ruling. Huggins then sought review by the Court of Appeals.

The Maryland Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the high court’s decision.

Huggins’ appellate attorney, Assistant Maryland Public Defender Piedad Gomez, did not respond immediately to a request for comment Friday.

The Court of Appeals issued its decision in Luis Felepe Huggins v. State of Maryland, No. 59, September Term 2021.