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State of Idaho v. Phillip James Morgan

January 25, 2013

STATE OF IDAHO, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
PHILLIP JAMES MORGAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the District Court of the Fourth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Ada County. Hon. Richard D. Greenwood, District Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Horton, Justice.

2013 Opinion No. 14

The district court order denying the motion to suppress is reversed, the judgment of conviction is vacated and the case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

This case arises from the traffic stop and subsequent arrest of Phillip James Morgan. A Boise City police officer observed Morgan driving in a way that caused the officer to believe Morgan was trying to avoid him. The officer initiated a traffic stop after observing that Morgan's vehicle did not have a front license plate and after Morgan stopped his vehicle on a roadway, believing these to be violations of I.C. §§ 49-428 and 49-659, respectively. Morgan was subsequently arrested for DUI. Morgan filed a motion to suppress all evidence garnered from the traffic stop, arguing the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The district court concluded that although Morgan may not have actually violated these traffic laws, the officer had reasonable articulable suspicion to believe that he had done so. Morgan's motion to suppress was denied, and he was convicted of felony DUI after a jury trial. Morgan timely appealed his conviction, arguing it was error for the district court to deny his motion to suppress.

We reverse the district court's order denying the motion to suppress, vacate the judgment of conviction and remand for further proceedings.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

A Boise City police officer was on patrol on a Friday night when he observed an SUV driving without a front license plate. He turned to follow the vehicle to determine whether it was a vehicle licensed in Idaho, as any vehicle licensed in Idaho must have a front and rear license plate. While the officer followed the SUV, it made a series of left-hand turns, ending up where the officer first began following it. The officer stated that the driver of the SUV was either very lost or was trying to avoid him. However, the SUV did not violate any traffic laws. At that point, the SUV pulled to the right but remained on the roadway. The officer was able to determine that the SUV was not registered in the state of Idaho. The officer initiated a traffic stop, believing the driver of the SUV had committed an infraction of Idaho Code by blocking the roadway. After approaching the vehicle and conducting field-sobriety tests, the officer arrested Morgan for DUI.

Prior to trial, Morgan moved to have all evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop suppressed. Morgan argued that there was no reasonable and articulable suspicion that he was operating his vehicle contrary to traffic laws. In a written decision, the district court denied Morgan's motion, holding:

It goes without saying that [the officer's] suspicion that Mr. Morgan was avoiding him was not the type of suspicion sufficient to permit an investigatory stop and detention. Nevertheless, at the time of the initiation of the temporary stop and detention, that is, when the overhead lights went on subsequently to Mr. Morgan's voluntary stop, [the officer] also had a reasonable articulable suspicion that the defendant had violated I.C. Sections 49-428 and 49-659.

Morgan's case then proceeded to trial and he was found guilty. The district court imposed an eight year sentence, with two years fixed, and retained jurisdiction. Morgan timely appealed, asserting that the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Determinations of reasonable suspicion are reviewed de novo. State v. Munoz, 149 Idaho 121, 127, 233 P.3d. 52, 58 (2010). "However, in conducting that review the appellate court 'should take care both to review findings of historical fact only for clear error and to give due weight to inferences drawn from those facts by resident judges and local law enforcement officers.'" Id. (quoting Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699 (1996)). The review must be based on the totality of the circumstances rather than examining each of the officer's observations in isolation. Id. (citing United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 274, 122 S.Ct. 744, 751, 151 L.Ed.2d 740, 750 (2002)).

III. ANALYSIS

The State concedes that the district court erred in its conclusion that the officer had a reasonable articulable suspicion that Morgan had violated I.C. ยงยง 49-428 and 49-659. Instead, in its Respondent's Brief, the State first proffered Boise City Ordinance 10-11-04 as justification for the stop. The State argues that because reasonable suspicion is an objective determination, it did not matter that neither the police officer nor the prosecutor appeared to be aware of Boise City Ordinance 10-11-04 at the time of the traffic stop and the subsequent suppression hearing. At oral argument, the State announced its intention to move this Court to augment the record with the city ordinance pursuant to Idaho Appellate Rule 30.2. A written motion was later filed, along with a certified copy of the Boise City Ordinance. This Court denied the motion to augment the record on due process grounds, holding ...


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