Monday, March 7, 2011

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

State v. Rutter, 2011 VT 13 (mem.)

Nothing says 2 a.m. on a Saturday night in a Vermont town like the sound of squealing tires.  Apparently for Vermont police officers, nothing says “potential DUI” like the sound of squealing tires, either.  SCOV might decline to characterize its opinion in this DUI appeal as creating any “bright-line rule,” but let’s all go ahead and say that DUI defendants aren’t going to have much luck from now on arguing that police lack reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle that peels out.  The more important take-away is that SCOV slammed the car door on “pretext” arguments for traffic stops. Opting for the federal approach, SCOV ruled for at least the second time this year that an officer’s subjective intent is irrelevant to “reasonable suspicion” analysis under the Vermont Constitution.

To the facts.  Around this time two years ago, a Brattleboro police officer parked on Main Street observed a car stop at an intersection and make a turn, while also hearing the sound of tires squealing and an engine revving.  Blue lights!  Officer asks Defendant “why he felt the need to peel out.”  Defendant explains that his “tires slipped a little on some gravel.”  Officer made “secondary observations,” and we have second-offense DUI.  If you’re unsure what we’re talking about here or need a visual, observe.
At the suppression hearing, the Defendant admitted to having four drinks at the bar that evening, but denied peeling out.  In fact, he even brought his father, the purchaser of the vehicle, to attest that the car wasn’t capable of peeling out.  Perhaps after mentally taking judicial notice of his or her younger days—the trial court decided to credit the officer’s testimony.  It found that the officer had a reasonable suspicion that the defendant committed a vehicle infraction when he pulled the Defendant over, and the alleged violation was not a pretext for the stop.

After all, Vermont has a traffic law for that.  23 VSA § 1063 says, “[n]o person shall move a vehicle which is stopped, standing or parking unless the movement can be made with reasonable safety.”  It’s the kind of traffic law you can drive a proverbial legal truck through.  As I look out the window and see at least six inches of snow coating the streets of Burlington, I wonder how many people might be violating this law right now.  As Defendant argues on appeal, a “transient” squealing of tires shouldn’t constitute a traffic violation, or at least not one sufficient to enable a stop, because otherwise, we could all be pulled over on this basis at some point or another.

Here we get a caution signal from SCOV.  “Obvious and wholly innocent” reasons such as weather or road conditions might cause tires to spin and “negate any suspicion that the driver was not proceeding with reasonable safety,” but the trial court must look to the totality of the circumstances.  Based on the trial court’s findings that the road conditions did not contribute to the squeal, there’s enough to suspect a violation.

As for the pretext claim, Defendant argues that police should not be able to use “trivial” traffic violations as opportunities to stop vehicles and check for other violations, as he says occurred here.  In response, SCOV adopts the federal rule, holding that the reasonable suspicion analysis is over if the officer had “an objectively reasonable suspicion that a motor vehicle violation has occurred,” regardless of subjective motivation or intent. 

Sorry Vermont teens, but just as drinking and driving don’t mix, and neither does driving and squealing.  Mind the clutch.

1 comment:

  1. No relation.
    Thanks for the blog.

    Brock Rutter, Montreal
    VLS '08 - Admitted in Vt. and N.Y.