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State v. Lerma

Supreme Court of South Dakota

August 17, 2016

STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
APOLINAR LERMA, Defendant and Appellee.

          CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON FEBRUARY 16, 2016

          REASSIGNED ON JULY 6, 2016

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SECOND JUDICIAL CIRCUIT MINNEHAHA COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE JOSEPH NEILES Judge

          MARTY J. JACKLEY Attorney General JARED TIDEMANN Assistant Attorney General Pierre, South Dakota

          JASON R. ADAMS of Tschetter & Adams Law Office, PC Sioux Falls, South Dakota Attorneys for defendant and appellee.

          ZINTER, Justice

         [¶1.] A police officer initiated an investigatory stop of a vehicle because the vehicle's left brake light was not working. The stop led to the arrest of the driver for driving under the influence of alcohol. The driver moved to suppress evidence obtained during the stop. He argued that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop because the broken brake light did not constitute a violation of law. In the driver's view, there was no violation of law because the relevant statute only required two working brake lights and his vehicle's right and top-center brake lights were working. The circuit court agreed. The court also ruled that the officer's belief-that South Dakota law required a working left and right brake light-was objectively unreasonable. The court granted the driver's motion to suppress. We reverse and remand.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2.] On April 29, 2014, Sioux Falls Police Officer Brian Wassenaar initiated a traffic stop of Apolinar Lerma's vehicle because the left brake light did not illuminate when Lerma stopped at a stop sign. Lerma's 2004 Hyundai Sonata was equipped with three rear brake lights-one light on each side and one center light mounted above the vehicle's trunk behind the back windshield. Although the left brake light did not illuminate, the right and center brake lights were operating properly.

         [¶3.] After stopping the vehicle, Officer Wassenaar observed indicia of alcohol consumption, and he suspected that Lerma was driving under the influence. Lerma performed field sobriety tests, including a preliminary breath test that indicated his blood alcohol content was 0.182 percent. He was arrested for driving under the influence.

         [¶4.] Lerma moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the stop. He argued that the stop violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures because the officer did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion that Lerma violated the law. More specifically, Lerma contended that SDCL 32-17-8.1 requires only two working brake lights and that his right and center brake lights were working properly. Officer Wassenaar testified at the suppression hearing that he believed South Dakota law required all brake lights equipped on a vehicle to be operational, and additionally, that the inoperative left brake light posed a safety hazard to other vehicles. Lerma, however, argued that the officer's belief regarding the brake light law was mistaken.

         [¶5.] The circuit court interpreted SDCL 32-17-8.1 to require only a total of two working brake lights. Because Lerma's vehicle had two working brake lights, the court suppressed the evidence gathered during the stop, concluding that the officer did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion for the stop. The day after the circuit court issued its decision, the United States Supreme Court decided Heien v. North Carolina, __U.S.__, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014). In Heien, a police officer initiated a traffic stop on the mistaken belief that a similar North Carolina law required working left and right brake lights. The Supreme Court upheld the seizure, concluding that the officer's mistaken belief was objectively reasonable. Id. at__, 135 S.Ct. at 540. The State moved the circuit court to reconsider in light of Heien. The circuit court denied the State's motion, ruling that it was objectively unreasonable for the officer to believe that Lerma's nonworking brake light constituted a violation of law.

         [¶6.] We granted the State's petition for intermediate appeal. On appeal, the State argues that the nonworking brake light constituted a violation of SDCL 32-17-8.1. Alternatively, the State argues that if there was no brake-light violation, the officer had reasonable suspicion for the stop because he reasonably believed that operating a vehicle with a nonworking brake light was a violation of SDCL 32-17-8.1. Whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop is a question of law we review de novo. Webb v. S.D. Dep't of Commerce & Regulation, 2004 S.D. 63, ¶ 6, 680 N.W.2d 661, 663.

         Decision

         [¶7.] We agree with the circuit court that SDCL 32-17-8.1 only requires two working brake lights. SDCL ...


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