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State v. Griffith

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

December 31, 2019


          SIDDOWAY, J.

         We are presented with a question of first impression in Washington: are warrantless, suspicionless, state courthouse security screenings constitutional, particularly if they include a search for controlled substances, either by design or as carried out in a particular case?

         The Chelan County Superior Court refused to suppress methamphetamine found in a pocket of Lanny Griffith's coat in the course of security screening that took place at the county courthouse. Applying well-settled law under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and a novel question under the Washington Constitution, we hold that if the security guard's action in removing methamphetamine from the coat pocket was not cabined to the scope of a permissible administrative search, the evidence should have been suppressed. Because there is a factual dispute whether the security guard's actions were consistent with the county's security screening policy, we remand for additional fact finding. Since the record provides insufficient evidence of Mr. Griffith's voluntary and knowing waiver of a jury trial, a new trial is ordered in the event the suppression motion is denied following the entry of additional findings.


         In January 2017, Lanny Griffith went to the Chelan County Superior Courthouse to make a payment toward legal financial obligations (LFOs). He proceeded to the fifth floor, where, in order to continue to the clerk's office, he had to go through a security screening. The security screening station was equipped with a magnetometer, which visitors were required to pass through after first placing items from their pockets in a basket. If a visitor set off the magnetometer, they were scanned with a hand wand. There was no X-ray device at the screening station, so bags and heavy coats were subject to a manual search.

         The security officer on duty at the fifth floor security station was private security guard James Mattix, who directed Mr. Griffith to empty his pockets and take off his coat. When Mr. Mattix searched the coat, he found a small clear ziplock bag of what appeared to be methamphetamine in a pocket. Mr. Mattix contacted his supervisor, Chelan County Deputy Sheriff Elgin Shaw, to report the discovery. Upon arriving at the security screening station and agreeing that the contents of the ziplock bag looked like methamphetamine, Deputy Shaw placed the bag in a locked desk and notified Wenatchee police, who dispatched Officer Shawndra Duke to respond. The contents of the bag proved to be methamphetamine, and the State charged Mr. Griffith with one count of possession of a controlled substance (methamphetamine).

         Mr. Griffith moved to suppress the seized methamphetamine, arguing that administrative weapons searches that have a dual purpose of searching for drugs violate the Fourth Amendment and article 1, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. At a two-day CrR 3.6 hearing, the trial court heard extensive testimony from Mr. Mattix, from Deputy Shaw, and from Officer Duke.

         Fourteen unchallenged findings of fact by the trial court summarize most of the relevant evidence presented at the hearing:

1. On January 6, 2017, Mr. Lanny Griffith entered the 5th Floor of the Chelan County Superior Courthouse;
2. Upon entering the 5th Floor from either the stairs or the elevator, Mr. Griffith would have seen the sign, a picture of which was admitted as Exhibit 1, informing him that all visitors were subject to security screening;
3. Any individual not desiring to pass through screening may leave at any time back down the stairs or elevator prior to passing through the magnetometer;
4. Security screenings are conducted by private security officers who are trained and supervised by Chelan County Jail Deputy Elgin Shaw to search for weapons;
. . . .
6. Mr. Griffith approached the security screening station, staffed by private security officer James Mattix;
7. Mr. Mattix observed that Mr. Griffith wore a heavy Carhartt-style coat;
8. Although not a formal policy or directive, Mr. Mattix uniformly requires all individuals with heavy jackets to remove the jacket for individual screening before the individual passes through the magnetometer;
9. Mr. Mattix uniformly requires the same for all briefcases, purses, backpacks, and other containers;
10. In the present case, Mr. Mattix asked Mr. Griffith to remove and handover the jacket for screening and Mr. Griffith complied;
11. While hand-searching the outside of the jacket, Mr. Mattix felt a soft bulky object in one of the pockets and removed it;
12. The object was a plastic baggie containing a small amount of methamphetamine;
13. There is some dispute whether Mr. Mattix also removed a cell phone from that same pocket in that Mr. Mattix testified that he did, but Officer Duke and Deputy Shaw testified that Mr. Mattix had told them that the cell phone had been handed over prior to the coat search; . . . .
15. Some individuals are allowed to pass through security without undergoing screening, including mail and parcel delivery personnel, the local legal process server, the local bail bondsman, on-duty law enforcement officers, and current county employees; [and]
16. Although not in writing, these exceptions are authorized by the County Commissioners and security screening personnel do not have discretion to except other individuals, nor is there evidence that the screening personnel vary from these authorized exceptions.

         Clerk's Papers (CP) at 37-38.

         The disputed evidence noted in finding 13 had to do with Mr. Mattix's testimony at the suppression hearing that the reason he reached into Mr. Griffith's coat pocket was because he felt a hard object that turned out to be Mr. Griffith's cell phone. Officer Duke and Deputy Shaw provided conflicting testimony; both testified that in speaking with Mr. Mattix on the day the methamphetamine was seized, he told them Mr. Griffin had placed his wallet and cell phone in a basket before handing over his coat.[1]

         The trial court's finding 14, one of three findings challenged on appeal, states:

14. The Court does not resolve th[e] dispute of fact [over whether Mr. Mattix had already removed a cell phone from the pocket] because the Court does not believe it necessary for this motion.

         CP at 38.

         Deputy Shaw testified during the CrR 3.6 hearing that he trains security officers to have people remove their coats, excluding suit jackets, and to physically check the coats and to reach into a pocket "[i]f they feel something rigid or hard, that could be a weapon." Report of Proceedings (RP)[2] at 50. He testified he instructs his officers that "[i]f it isn't rigid, and you cannot believe it might be a weapon, then you're not to reach in that pocket." Id. at 69. He testified that if the security officers find drugs, they are to lock the drugs in a desk at the security station and call him, which was the procedure followed by Mr. Mattix.

         Mr. Mattix testified that when he is searching someone's coat, his "main goal" is to look for weapons, later explaining that while his "primary purpose is to search for weapons," his secondary purpose is contraband. Id. at 36, 38. He testified that when checking the pockets of a coat, he will feel and "[i]f there's anything hard, that's going to lead me to the pocket, I'm going to check the pocket. If there's nothing there, there's no reason to check the pockets." Id. at 10. Later, however, he testified that even if he feels something soft, he is "still going to look." Id. at 38. Asked why, he said: "Curiosity. Got to know what it is." Id.

         Finally, Mr. Mattix testified to his understanding of the dangers of certain drugs- in particular, fentanyl. He testified that based on his personal reading and research on fentanyl, he believed "it would take just a couple micrograms, to drop me on the floor, overdose." Id. at 41. He testified that the security company for which he worked had trained him to recognize marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, LSD, [3] and psilocybin. He acknowledged that he had received no training on chemical or biological weapons.

         At the conclusion of the suppression hearing, the trial court orally denied the motion to suppress. In written findings and conclusions entered thereafter, the trial court gave two reasons for its conclusion that the search was valid. The first was that Mr. Griffith impliedly consented to the search, since he had the opportunity to leave rather than be searched and had willingly relinquished his coat to Mr. Mattix. The second was that the search was a valid administrative search under the federal and state constitutions because it was conducted as part of a uniform process for searching for weapons and other dangerous objects, Mr. Mattix lacks discretion on who to search, and the discovery of drugs was incidental to a search for dangerous objects. Citing State v. Book, 165 Ohio App.3d 511, 2006-Ohio-1102, 847 N.E.2d 52, the trial court concluded that modern drugs such as fentanyl pose a sufficient danger to the public to justify being the object of an administrative search in a courthouse in and of themselves.

         Following the decision on the suppression motion, Mr. Griffith agreed to a stipulated facts trial. He did not sign a waiver of trial by jury or agree in open court to waive his jury trial right. The trial court clearly assumed there had been a waiver of jury trial and, after considering the stipulated facts, it found Mr. Griffith guilty as charged. Mr. Griffith's sentence was stayed pending this appeal.


         Mr. Griffith assigns error to the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress and to its finding him guilty following a stipulated facts trial, absent a valid waiver of his constitutional right to trial by jury. We address his challenge to the ...

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