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State v. Gagne

Supreme Court of Vermont

June 10, 2016

State of Vermont
Jason L. Gagne

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Criminal Division

          Jason L. Gagne January Term, 2016 Martin A. Maley, J. (motion to exclude);

          Alison S. Arms, J. (final judgment) John T. Lavoie, Franklin County Deputy State's Attorney, St. Albans, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, Rebecca Turner, Appellate Defender, and Marie Horbar, Law Clerk (On the Brief), Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

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

          ROBINSON, J.

         ¶ 1. This appeal stems from a road rage incident in St. Albans in which defendant Jason Gagne chased a couple across town, eventually pulling up next to their truck and pointing a rifle at them. Before trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of his alcohol breath test on the ground that he was not able to meaningfully communicate with his lawyer before submitting to the test due to his belief-which turned out to be well-founded––that his conversation with counsel was being recorded by the police. The trial court denied the motion, and following a trial, a jury convicted defendant of aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment, driving under the influence, and negligent operation of a vehicle. On appeal, defendant argues that the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress, failing to instruct the jury that the definition of "threat" for the purposes of aggravated assault and simple assault is based on an objective standard, and allowing convictions for aggravated assault, simple assault, and reckless endangerment for the same conduct, in violation of defendant's double jeopardy rights. We reverse the trial court's ruling on the suppression motion and reverse and remand defendant's conviction for driving under the influence; uphold the trial court's jury instructions; and affirm the aggravated assault and reckless endangerment convictions, but vacate the simple assault conviction on double jeopardy grounds.

         ¶ 2. The evidence, viewed "in the light most favorable to the State as the prevailing party, " State v. McCarthy, 2012 VT 34, ¶ 2, 191 Vt. 498, 48 A.3d 616, is as follows. Complainants are an elderly couple. At trial, wife testified that on December 29, 2013, she and her husband left their home to drive in their truck to Wal-Mart. As the couple was traveling, defendant, who was driving a sedan, pulled out from the street to their right and made a left-hand turn in front of them. Wife, who was driving, slammed on her brakes to avoid a collision and honked her horn. Defendant "flipped [wife] the bird, " and continued on his way in the opposite direction of the couple.

         ¶ 3. After continuing on, wife noticed in her rearview mirror that defendant had returned and was driving close behind the truck. When they stopped at an intersection, defendant pulled up next to the right-hand side of the truck and spewed obscenities at the couple. Once the light turned green, the couple turned left, and defendant turned right.

         ¶ 4. Still on their way to Wal-Mart, the couple traveled a few car lengths before defendant reappeared close behind their truck's bumper. Wife described defendant as angry with large eyes. She was "scared to death" and phoned the police. The couple stayed on the line with the 911 dispatcher throughout the rest of the incident.

         ¶ 5. After passing through several lights, the couple stopped at an intersection and defendant pulled next to them in the right-hand turn lane. At that point, wife saw defendant point a gun toward her husband. The gun, which wife described as a rifle with a silver scope, was laid across defendant's left arm and held by his right hand. Wife testified that defendant had "malice in his eyes" and that she thought both she and her husband were going to die because of defendant's demeanor and constant "dogging" of the couple. When the light turned green, wife was relieved to see defendant taking the right-hand turn.

         ¶ 6. When the couple arrived at the turn for Wal-Mart, defendant once again appeared right behind the couple close to the truck's bumper. After entering the parking lot, the couple made a U-turn, and drove out of the parking lot back onto the main road, heading toward the St. Albans Police Department. At the next light, defendant again appeared behind the couple, and wife saw the gun briefly before defendant put it on the passenger side of his car. Once the couple entered downtown St. Albans, they turned towards the St. Albans Police Station and the police apprehended defendant.[1]

         ¶ 7. Officer Paul Morits was the arresting officer. He testified that when he approached defendant's car after stopping him in a parking lot, he saw a gun on the seat and two empty beer bottles. Officer Morits ordered defendant from the vehicle, handcuffed him, and had defendant stand next to the police cruiser. While defendant was standing next to the police cruiser, Officer Morits noticed alcohol on defendant's breath and noticed that defendant was unbalanced on his feet. Defendant was transported to the St. Albans police station.

         I. The Suppression Motion

         ¶ 8. Defendant's suppression motion arises from events at the police station when defendant was processed for driving under the influence (DUI). In connection with that motion, the trial court made the following findings, which defendant does not challenge on appeal. The standard practice in the St. Albans Police Department is to record DUI processing, but to turn off the recording device when a defendant is given a chance to consult with an attorney. In this case, when defendant was about to speak to his attorney by phone, Officer Morits left the room, but forgot to turn off the recording device. As a consequence, defendant's conversation with counsel was recorded. Officer Morits did not disclose to defendant that the processing was being recorded. Defendant never asked the officer if he was being recorded, but throughout the booking process, defendant repeatedly stated "it's all being recorded, " and further stated "I have no rights." Just prior to his telephone conversation with an attorney, defendant stated "I want to talk to a public defender, but I know what they will say . . . it doesn't matter, everything is being recorded anyway." Officer Morits did not respond to defendant's repeated statements that he knew that everything was being recorded, and defendant did not specifically request that the police turn off the recording device.

         ¶ 9. After a thirty minute conversation between defendant and counsel, Officer Morits returned and told defendant that his time with his attorney had ended. Officer Morits asked defendant if he would submit to a breath test, and defendant agreed. Defendant's breath sample resulted in a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.121%.

         ¶ 10. Defendant moved to suppress the breath test results, arguing that defendant's belief that his conversation with counsel was being recorded caused him to feel inhibited in seeking legal advice.

         ¶ 11. The trial court disagreed and denied defendant's motion. The court noted that 23 V.S.A. § 1202 provides that a suspect has a right to consult with an attorney prior to either submitting to a breath test or refusing one. The trial court explained that this consultation must be meaningful and reasonably private, but the right of privacy is not absolute and must be balanced against security interests. The court concluded that, although defendant thought his conversation was being recorded, his belief was not objectively reasonable, and he was not entitled to suppression of the breath test results. Defendant renews his arguments on appeal.

         ¶ 12. In considering the parties' arguments, we consider first the applicable standard of review, and then the merits.

         ¶ 13. With respect to the standard of review, we reject the State's argument that the trial court's ruling was based on a factual finding subject to deferential review. When reviewing a motion to suppress, "we review the trial court's legal conclusions de novo and its findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard." State v. Oney, 2009 VT 116, ¶ 11, 187 Vt. 56, 989 A.2d 998. The State argues the trial court's ruling was based on a credibility finding-namely, the court did not believe defendant's testimony that he felt inhibited. Our reading of the trial court's decision, however, leads us to conclude that the trial court ruled that even if defendant believed he was being recorded and even if he personally felt inhibited, his belief was not reasonable. That conclusion is a legal conclusion that we review anew, without deference. See, e.g., State v. Weisler, 2011 VT 96, ¶¶ 18-20, ¶ 25, 190 Vt. 344, 35 A.3d 970 (holding in context of consent to search, trial court's conclusion regarding whether reasonable person in defendant's circumstances would feel free to refuse officer's request to search subject to nondeferential review); State v. Muntean, 2010 ...

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