Saturday, December 13, 2014

Trees, Trucks, and Trouble

State v. Hinton, 2014 VT 131

By Andrew Delaney

Losing one’s driver’s license is a big deal—especially in Vermont. Public transportation is pretty much nonexistent and hitchhiking to and from work can get old in a hurry. So, if there’s a shot at getting a DUI tossed based on an unlawful seizure or some other violation, most people will take it.

At first I thought the defendant in this case might be Unknown Hinson, which would’ve been an interesting twist, but alas, we’re one letter off. So we probably won’t get a psychobilly ballad about trucks, trees, and troopers to accompany this opinion.

It all started with a tree. In late December of last year, the tree broke off about fifteen feet above the ground and partially blocked a roadway. An officer responded to the scene, decided the tree was a danger, called the highway crew, and drove a mile or two back to an intersection to (allegedly) warn drivers of the danger if they were headed up the road.
He parked a couple hundred yards up the road from the intersection. When a driver would approach, he’d activate his blue lights and speak to the driver. If the driver’s destination was beyond the fallen tree, he’d tell the driver to take an alternate route. He went through this process with four people before Mr. Hinton came along.

When the officer activated his blue lights, Mr. Hinton stopped his truck about 150 feet away. The officer gestured for Mr. Hinton to approach, but Mr. Hinton pulled over instead. The officer thought Mr. Hinton might be confused, so he approached the vehicle to speak with him.

When the officer explained the situation, Mr. Hinton was all like, “I’ve got a hatchet. I’ll cut it down.” The officer explained that this was impractical, but Mr. Hinton wanted to go cut the tree down with his hatchet. Personally, I’m with Mr. Hinton on this one. My little brother recently got me a nice little hatchet that’s so sharp it only takes a few whacks to chop down a full-sized tree. I’m guessing the officer has never had a really nice hatchet. There could’ve been a really fun presentation with my hatchet at the final hearing, “Your honor, watch this. It’ll slice through this podium like butter . . . One! . . . Two! . . . Three! . . .” But I digress.

Back to the real story. During the conversation, the officer “noticed that defendant’s eyes were bloodshot and watery.” Because, really, when are a defendant’s eyes ever NOT “bloodshot and watery”? That’s right—never. The officer also thought Mr. Hinton was confused, and the officer saw what he thought was the bottom of a liquor or wine bottle that Mr. Hinton tried to cover with a paper bag. Can y’all guess where this is going?

Yep.  Mr. Hinton gets processed and charged with DUI.

He filed a motion to suppress and dismiss, but the trial court denied it on the basis that at the time of the encounter, the officer was doing the whole community-caretaking thing. Then, when the officer saw indicia of intoxication, he was justified in investigating further. Based on the trial court’s ruling, Mr. Hinton entered a conditional plea of guilty and appealed.

Mr. Hinton’s argument on appeal is that he was stopped and seized when there was no real emergency, he didn’t need any assistance, and wasn’t in distress or imminent danger. Thus, there was no reasonable basis for the stop and the whole thing needs to get tossed.

The SCOV notes that on appeal of a motion to suppress legal conclusions are reviewed de novo and factual findings are reviewed for clear error. In this case, the SCOV concludes that the community-caretaking exception applies and the motion was properly denied.

The SCOV explains that usually a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” of wrongdoing is required for a traffic stop. In the community-caretaking function, however, that’s not necessary. The key distinguishing factor is that in the community-caretaking context, the motivation for the stop is “a desire to aid victims rather than investigate criminals.”

I just want to point out here that in my humble opinion, Mr. Hinton was not a victim. He had a hatchet. He’s a freakin’ Boy Scout standing ready to take out any offensive road-blocking trees. Unfortunately, this is of little import to the legal analysis here (not that we ever let that stop us ‘round here).

The SCOV runs through a litany of community-caretaking cases, while noting that none of the factual backgrounds totally jibe with this case’s facts. At any rate, if you like explanatory parentheticals, you’ll love paragraph 11 of this case.

The purpose of this flex of citation muscles is to point out that Mr. Hinton’s attempts to apply the exceptions to the community-caretaking exception don’t work based on the facts. In this case, the SCOV opines that under the circumstances “the officer’s decision to approach defendant’s car and engage defendant in conversation was eminently reasonable.”

The SCOV takes a look at a local federal case, in which a defendant was initially stopped due to power lines across a road, an accident, and icy conditions. That court reached the same conclusion as the SCOV does in this case, and the facts are close, so it makes sense for the SCOV to give it a healthy nod.

I do feel compelled once again to point out that this case has a tree, not live power lines, and Mr. Hinton had a hatchet. I may just start mumbling like Milton Waddams in Office Space, substituting the word “hatchet” for “stapler.”

So, if a tree falls in the forest, and blocks the road, can defendant get charged with a DUI? The SCOV says “yes” in this case.

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