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State v. Tenold

Supreme Court of South Dakota

December 18, 2019

STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
CURTIS DEAN TENOLD, Defendant and Appellant.

          ARGUED ON AUGUST 27, 2019

          APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FOURTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT LAWRENCE COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE MICHELLE K. COMER Judge

          ERIC T. DAVIS NATHANIEL F. NELSON of Nelson Law Sturgis, South Dakota Attorney for defendant and appellant.

          JASON R. RAVNSBORG Attorney General

          SARAH L. LARSON Assistant Attorney General Pierre, South Dakota Attorneys for plaintiff and appellee.

          DEVANEY, JUSTICE

         [¶1.] A Deadwood police officer initiated a traffic stop of the defendant's vehicle because the officer observed a brake light emit a white light. A consent search of the vehicle did not produce any evidence of unlawful drugs; however, the officer later found a foil ball under the passenger seat of the officer's vehicle where the defendant had been seated. A presumptive test of a substance in the foil ball was positive for methamphetamine, and the defendant was arrested. Thereafter, law enforcement seized evidence from the defendant's hotel room pursuant to a search warrant, and the defendant was indicted for possession and ingestion of an unauthorized controlled substance. The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle because it had two properly working brake lights. The circuit court denied the motion, and a jury found the defendant guilty on both counts. The defendant appeals. We reverse and remand.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         [¶2.] On February 2, 2017, at 2:35 a.m., Officer Braxton McKeon noticed what he believed to be Curtis Tenold's vehicle leaving the Deadwood Mountain Grand. He decided to follow the vehicle because he had previously received information from Officer James Olson that Tenold and Lana Gravatt were suspected of dealing methamphetamine out of their hotel room at the Deadwood Mountain Grand. Officer McKeon did not immediately initiate a traffic stop because, according to Officer McKeon's later testimony, the claim of methamphetamine dealing "had not been substantiated enough" to seek out Tenold and Gravatt on those allegations.

         [¶3.] While following Tenold's vehicle, Officer McKeon believed he had reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop when he observed what he later described as "one" taillight "emitting a white light when the brakes were applied." According to Officer McKeon, the brake light in the rear back window of the vehicle emitted white light, while the two taillights on the left and right sides of the vehicle emitted red light. Officer McKeon acknowledged that a vehicle needs only two working brake lights, but he believed that Tenold was committing a traffic violation nonetheless because his third brake light emitted white light.

         [¶4.] After stopping the vehicle, Officer McKeon explained to Tenold that he had a broken taillight and would receive a warning ticket for the light. Officer McKeon also asked for and obtained consent from Tenold to search the vehicle. Another officer arrived at the scene, so Officer McKeon had Tenold's passenger, Gravatt, sit in that officer's vehicle during the search. Tenold sat in the front passenger seat of Officer McKeon's patrol vehicle. The search produced no evidence of illegal drug activity. Officer McKeon told Tenold and Gravatt that they were free to leave, and Tenold drove away.

         [¶5.] After Officer McKeon returned to the police department, he performed a routine search of his vehicle for items that may have been left by the last occupant. The search revealed a small foil ball under the front passenger seat where Tenold had been sitting during the stop. Officer McKeon believed the ball contained a white crystalline substance. His field test of the substance produced a presumptive positive result for methamphetamine.

         [¶6.] Concluding that the foil ball belonged to Tenold, Officer McKeon located Tenold at a nearby casino and placed him under arrest. He searched Tenold's person and found a small amount of marijuana. Thereafter, Officer McKeon prepared an affidavit in support of a request for a warrant to search Tenold and Gravatt's hotel room. In the affidavit, Officer McKeon included additional information he had obtained from Officer Olson regarding Tenold's and Gravatt's suspected drug activity. Officer McKeon also included information regarding his discovery of the foil ball after the stop and the marijuana found on Tenold's person upon his arrest.

         [¶7.] A judge issued the warrant, and a search of the hotel room produced marijuana, drug paraphernalia, and a small amount of methamphetamine. Tenold was indicted by a grand jury and was charged in a superseding indictment with one count of unauthorized possession of a controlled substance or drug and one count of unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance. Tenold pled not guilty.

         [¶8.] Before trial, Tenold filed a motion to suppress. He argued that Officer McKeon did not have reasonable suspicion to initiate a stop of Tenold's vehicle because no law requires that all brake lights emit only red light upon actuation. He further claimed it was unreasonable for Officer McKeon to believe that the emission of white light from one of Tenold's three brake lights violated any law. Finally, according to Tenold, all evidence obtained after the stop should be suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree because the evidence was obtained as a result of the stop.

         [¶9.] After two hearings, the circuit court denied Tenold's motion to suppress. A jury later found Tenold guilty of unauthorized possession of a controlled substance and unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance. Tenold appeals, asserting the circuit court erred when it denied his motion to suppress. He also asks this Court to modify existing law to prohibit pretextual stops as unconstitutional, an issue we need not address because of our disposition on the first issue.

         Analysis and Decision

         Legality of the Stop

         [¶10.] Tenold contends the circuit court erred when it interpreted SDCL 32-17-8.1 to mean that only red light may display from all stop lamps upon actuation. The plain language of the statute, Tenold claims, does not prohibit the emission of white light from a third brake light when two brake lights meet the display and actuation requirements of SDCL 32-17-8.1. Therefore, in Tenold's view, Officer McKeon did not have reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop. We review de novo the issue whether an officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic ...


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