Sunday, April 13, 2014

There has to be a reason for everything . . .

State v. Button, 2013 VT 92

By Andrew Delaney

If you aren’t doing anything wrong, then the police can’t stop your vehicle just for kicks. This is pretty basic, but nonetheless I’m sure the criminal-defense bar will breathe a collective sigh of relief after reading this opinion.

Personal story time: One night, not too long ago, I was driving on a dirt road on my way home from dropping off a friend. A car came up fast behind me and proceeded to tailgate. I signaled and pulled over to the side of the road. Then I saw the blue lights.

The nice officer informed me that I was “driving too slow.” He then asked me to produce my license, registration, and proof of insurance, which I did. All were in order. When he returned to my vehicle, he asked me if I had had anything to drink. I said no. He said he could smell it and told me that my eyes were “telling [him] a different story.” I laughed. I was then ordered out of my vehicle. At this point, I started grumbling about “reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing” and so on.

The nice officer said: “Now is not the time to play roadside lawyer, sir.”

To which I responded: “I am a lawyer.”

Of course, my friends came up with a great number of much-wittier responses after the fact. The entire story is rather entertaining and I’d be happy to tell you all about it sometime (including the part where I was asked to put my contacts on the hood of the cruiser, and the part where I blew zeros and the officer acted surprised). The point is that I used to take a client’s claim that he or she was pulled over “for no reason at all” with a grain of salt. When it happens to you, though, it changes your perspective a bit.

Defendant had a similar experience to mine. He was driving on a gravel road in a scarcely populated area when a trooper passed him going in the opposite direction. The trooper decided to turn around and follow him just for fun. The trooper had not observed and did not observe any traffic violations. Eventually, defendant pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and stopped with the engine and lights on. The trooper pulled in behind him, waited 30 seconds or so, then hit the blue lights.

Based on their subsequent interaction, defendant was arrested and charged with DUI3.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress based on lack of a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. The State did not rely on reasonable suspicion, but chose instead to rely on the so-called community-caretaking doctrine.

The trial court agreed that the stop fell within the community-caretaking doctrine, and denied defendant’s motion. Defendant entered a conditional-guilty plea and appealed.

The SCOV reverses. Defendant’s argument on appeal is “that the community caretaking doctrine does not justify the stop because the objective facts, as observed by the trooper, were insufficient to support a reasonable belief that defendant needed help.” The SCOV agrees.

First, the SCOV notes that the trooper’s actions—“driving behind defendant, pulling over behind him, activating blue lights and approaching defendant’s car”—amount to a seizure, and the State doesn’t challenge this. The SCOV notes that to satisfy constitutional requirements, there must be “at a minimum, reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot before they seize someone.” Nonetheless, there is an acknowledged “community caretaking” exception when there is a reasonable factual basis to believe a defendant is in distress or that someone requires assistance.

Here, the SCOV reasons that “the objective facts . . . did not provide sufficient grounds to believe that defendant was in distress to warrant the trooper’s seizure.” Defendant stopped on the side of the road on “a back-country road, where it posed no danger to oncoming traffic.” There was no erratic driving. No laws had been broken.

The trial court had used these same facts to reason that defendant might’ve been having a heart attack or some other serious problem, thereby justifying the trooper’s stop. The SCOV holds that specific and articulable facts, as opposed to conclusory speculations are required to invoke the community-caretaking exception. The SCOV distinguishes a prior case at some length, but as we repeat ad nauseum here at SCOV law, you can read the full opinion if you want to absorb that analysis.

The SCOV opines: “We all rely on law enforcement officers to promote public safety through means other than the detection and investigation of crimes, and we do not mean to unduly restrict the ability of police officers to offer help to people who appear to need it.” Nonetheless, on the facts of this case, the stop was not justified. Defendant did not indicate he was in distress or needed help and he was pulled over in a relatively safe spot. And that’s that.

Score one for the defense bar.

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