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State v. Howard

Supreme Court of Vermont

April 29, 2016

State of Vermont
v.
Stephen Howard

On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Criminal Division Alison S. Arms, J.

Heather J. Brochu, Franklin County Deputy State's Attorney, St. Albans, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, Anna Saxman, Deputy Defender General, and Kerrie Johnson, Legal Intern, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellee.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

REIBER, C.J.

¶ 1. In this driving under the influence (DUI) case, the State appeals the granting of defendant's motion to exclude evidence collected from a traffic violation stop of his car. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the case because it concluded that the trooper who conducted the stop did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that defendant committed a traffic violation. We reverse and remand.

¶ 2. The court's findings were based on testimony from both the trooper and defendant, and also on cruiser dashcam video of the stop and the events leading up to it. The trooper testified that he was on active duty patrolling the roads of Franklin County on the night of July 26, 2014. He was traveling east along Route 36 and looking for drivers impaired by drugs or alcohol. As the trooper was following and observing two drivers, defendant-the lead driver-"made an abrupt maneuver over the center line with his vehicle." This maneuver caught the trooper's attention and he pulled defendant over. After the trooper asked defendant if he knew why he had stopped him and defendant replied that he did not, the trooper informed defendant that he had observed him cross the center line. The trooper testified that defendant then told him that the second driver-the one behind him but in front of the trooper-was blinding him with his headlights. During the motion hearing, the trooper was unable to corroborate defendant's explanation; when shown video of the encounter on cross-examination and asked whether the second driver did in fact have his high beams on, the trooper responded "I don't know."

¶ 3. While testifying at the motion hearing, defendant repeated that his ability to see the road was impaired by the reflection in his mirrors of the headlights of the second driver and that he attempted to escape these lights by moving to the left, towards the center line: "All I did was see lights. . . . The lights were-the guy was right behind me. . . . I don't know where I was on the road or anything." Defendant went on to say that, by moving left of the center of his lane, "I could at least get it out of my vision and out of my-the glare out of the side mirror."

¶ 4. After defendant testified, the court orally described its findings and its process of determining whether there was a proper basis for the stop. Because it determined that the trooper did not have a reasonable suspicion that defendant committed a traffic violation, the court granted the motion, excluding the DUI evidence collected from the stop:

The [c]ourt viewed [the dashcam video] in court, and the [c]ourt observed that the Defendant did, as the Defendant stated, while he was driving or some several seconds before being stopped, maintain his lane. He did not engage in intralane weaving. The Defendant testified that he did move to the left of center in order to get the glare of the headlights of the car behind him out of his line of sight because it was obstructing his vision.
The [c]ourt finds that while the Defendant did move to the center line and did slightly move over the center line, that this was not reasonable and articulable suspicion, that he had committed a motor vehicle infraction. In this case it was, in fact, a very subtle move and would not have indicated that Defendant was under the influence. There was suspicion that he was under the influence of alcohol, and to the extent that it was a violation of a motor vehicle code, it was very slight.
And I think that the Defendant would have provided a sufficient defense if it was just defense to the motor vehicle violation. But in this case the [c]ourt also finds that it was so subtle, that the [c]ourt does not find that he actually committed the violation. So the Defendant's motion is granted.

The court then dismissed the case, and the State now appeals both the granting of the motion to exclude and the dismissal of the case. The State argues that the law does not support the court's finding that the trooper did not have a reasonable basis to perform a stop. Defendant responds that it does. We hold that the court erred in finding that defendant's crossing of the center line "was not reasonable and articulable suspicion, that he had committed a motor vehicle infraction." To the contrary-by the court's own description of the stop and the events leading up to it-the trooper had a reasonable basis to perform a stop because he had a reasonable suspicion that defendant committed a traffic violation. We reverse and remand for additional proceedings.

¶ 5. The prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution determines whether evidence gathered from a traffic stop may be used against a defendant. See United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417 (1981) ("The Fourth Amendment applies to seizures of the person, including brief investigatory stops such as the stop of the vehicle here."). Under this prohibition, the State need not show that the driver actually committed a wrongdoing before the stop. State v. Rutter, 2011 VT 13, ¶ 10, 189 Vt. 574, 15 A.3d 132 (2011) (mem.) (holding that, to determine legality of stop, Court "need not decide whether defendant actually violated" law concerning starting parked vehicles (emphasis in original)). Nor does a police officer need more than a reasonable suspicion that a driver has committed a wrongdoing to stop the driver. See State v. Beauregard, 2003 VT 3, ¶ 6, 175 Vt. 472, 820 A.2d 183 (mem.) ("The level of suspicion required for a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment is 'considerably less than proof of wrongdoing by a preponderance of the evidence.' " (quoting United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989))). All that is required is that the officer have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that the driver ...


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