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State of South Dakota v. Kevin D. Wright

December 8, 2010

STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA,
PLAINTIFF AND APPELLEE,
v.
KEVIN D. WRIGHT,
DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FIRST JUDICIAL CIRCUIT BRULE COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA HONORABLE BRUCE V. ANDERSON Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Severson, Justice

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON OCTOBER 4, 2010

[¶1.] Kevin Duane Wright was convicted of possession of marijuana in violation of SDCL 22-42-6. He appeals the trial court's order denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained during the stop and subsequent search of his vehicle. Wright argues that his failure to dim his headlights did not violate South Dakota law and that the officer therefore did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop his vehicle. We reverse.

BACKGROUND

[¶2.] In the early evening on November 11, 2008, Trooper Brian Biehl of the South Dakota Highway Patrol was traveling west on Interstate 90 in Brule County, South Dakota. It was dark and overcast. At approximately 5:55 p.m., Trooper Biehl encountered Wright's vehicle, which was traveling west in the right lane of traffic. Wright was driving sixty-five miles per hour, approximately ten miles per hour slower than Trooper Biehl. Trooper Biehl, who was driving in the left lane, passed Wright.

[¶3.] When Trooper Biehl was approximately six car-lengths ahead of Wright, he noticed that Wright's headlights were exceptionally bright. Trooper Biehl observed that Wright's vehicle was equipped with a four headlight system. On these systems, the two outside lights operate as the low beam and the two inside lights operate as the high beam. Trooper Biehl saw that the two inside lights on Wright's vehicle were illuminated, meaning that his headlights were on high beam.

[¶4.] Trooper Biehl, believing that Wright's failure to dim his headlights as he was passed violated SDCL 32-17-7, decided to stop Wright. Trooper Biehl, who was still driving in the left lane, slowed his vehicle and allowed Wright to overtake him. Wright failed to dim his headlights when he overtook Trooper Biehl, but Trooper Biehl did not testify that this was a basis for the stop. Once behind Wright's vehicle, Trooper Biehl activated his lights. Wright pulled to the side of the highway and stopped his vehicle.

[¶5.] Trooper Biehl approached Wright's car. As he stood at the driver's-side window, Trooper Biehl immediately noticed a strong odor of burnt marijuana emanating from Wright's vehicle. Trooper Biehl asked Wright when he last smoked marijuana. Wright stated that he smoked marijuana a few hours earlier. Trooper Biehl then asked Wright "how much marijuana was in the vehicle." Wright admitted that "there was a bag of personal use marijuana on the floor." Trooper Biehl removed Wright from his vehicle and placed him in the patrol car. Trooper Biehl searched Wright's car and located a bag containing one-half ounce of a green leafy substance on the floor of the vehicle. He also found a tin Altoid box containing three-fourths of an ounce of a green leafy substance next to the driver's seat, a pipe, and other containers. Field tests confirmed that the substance Trooper Biehl found in Wright's vehicle was marijuana.

[¶6.] Trooper Biehl informed Wright that he was under arrest for possession of marijuana and advised Wright of his Miranda rights. Wright waived his rights and agreed to speak with Trooper Biehl. When Trooper Biehl asked Wright whether "there was any more marijuana in the vehicle," Wright directed Trooper Biehl to "an apple box in the back seat of the vehicle." Trooper Biehl located the box, which contained 4.16 ounces of marijuana. Wright was later transported to the Brule County Jail, where he tested positive for marijuana ingestion.

[¶7.] Trooper Biehl issued Wright citations for possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia, and ingestion of a toxic substance. A complaint and an information were later filed charging essentially the same violations. Wright filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the stop and subsequent search of his vehicle. He argued that his failure to dim his headlights was not a violation of South Dakota law and that Trooper Biehl therefore did not have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop his vehicle. The trial court denied Wright's motion to suppress. The trial court acknowledged that Trooper Biehl misinterpreted SDCL 32-17-7, but found that his mistake of law was objectively reasonable because the statute is "counterintuitive and confusing." The case proceeded to a bench trial, and the trial court found Wright guilty of one count of marijuana possession. Wright appeals the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶8.] Our standard of review of motions to suppress is well settled. "A motion to suppress based on an alleged violation of a constitutionally protected right is a question of law reviewed de novo." State v. Thunder, 2010 S.D. 3, ¶ 11, 777 N.W.2d 373, 377 (quoting State v. Labine, 2007 S.D. 48, ¶ 12, 733 N.W.2d 265, 268). The trial court's factual findings are reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard. Id. (citation omitted). "Once the facts have been determined, however, the application of a legal standard to those facts is a question of law reviewed de novo." Id. (quoting Labine, 2007 S.D. 48, ¶ 12, 733 N.W.2d at 269). This Court will not be restricted by the trial court's legal rationale. Id.(citing State v. Christensen, 2003 S.D. 64, ¶ 7, 663 N.W.2d 691, 694).

ANALYSIS AND DECISION

[¶9.] Wright challenges the stop of his vehicle under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

U.S. Const. amend. IV. "Police ordinarily must obtain a warrant based on probable cause and issued by a neutral magistrate before searching or seizing an individual's property." Thunder, 2010 S.D. 3, ¶ 13, 777 N.W.2d at 378 (citing State v. DeLaRosa, 2003 S.D. 18, ¶ 7, 657 N.W.2d 683, 685 (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1879, 20 L.Ed.2d 889, 905 (1968))). "If a warrantless search or seizure is conducted, it is the State's burden to show [that] the entry into the protected area was justified." Id. (citing Christensen, 2003 S.D. 64, ¶ 12, 663 N.W.2d at 695 (citing Vale v. Louisiana, 399 U.S. 30, 34, 90 S.Ct. 1969, 1972, 26 L.Ed.2d 409 (1970))).

[¶10.] "The Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures applies when a vehicle is stopped by law enforcement." State v. Hayen, 2008 S.D. 41, ¶ 5, 751 N.W.2d 306, 308 (quoting State v. Muller, 2005 S.D. 66, ¶ 14, 698 N.W.2d 285, 288). See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 1396, 59 L.Ed.2d 660, 667 (1979). Although the Fourth Amendment generally requires a warrant, the United States Supreme Court recognizes police officers' need to safely and effectively perform their functions. DeLaRosa, 2003 S.D. 18, ¶ 7, 657 N.W.2d at 685-86 (citing Terry, 392 U.S. at 23, 88 S.Ct. at 1881, 20 L.Ed.2d at 906-07). The Court therefore established that "the Fourth Amendment permits a brief investigatory stop of a vehicle when 'the officer's action is supported by reasonable suspicion . . . that criminal activity may be afoot.'" Hayen, 2008 S.D. 41, ¶ 5, 751 N.W.2d at 308 (quoting State v. Kenyon, 2002 S.D. 111, ¶ 14, 651 N.W.2d 269, 273).

[¶11.] "[A]rticulating a precise definition of reasonable suspicion is 'not possible.'" State v. Quartier, 2008 S.D. 62, ¶ 10, 753 N.W.2d 885, 888 (quoting State v. Aaberg, 2006 S.D. 58, ¶ 10, 718 N.W.2d 598, 600 (citing Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 695, 116 S.Ct. 1657, 1661, 134 L.Ed.2d 911 (1996))). "Reasonable suspicion is a common-sense and non-technical concept dealing with the practical considerations of everyday life." Id.(citing Aaberg, 2006 S.D. 58, ¶ 10, 718 N.W.2d at 600). Thus, while a stop may not be the "product of mere whim, caprice, or idle curiosity, it is enough that the stop is based upon 'specific and articulable facts, which taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion.'" Id.(quoting State v. Akuba, 2004 S.D. 94, ¶ 15, 686 N.W.2d 406, 413). "Once reasonable suspicion arises, law enforcement ...


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