State of Utah v. Jason Lyle Butler

2011 UT App 281
Filed August 25, 2011
Memorandum Decision

Officers’ traffic stop, detention of the defendant, and search of a vehicle was constitutional when the officers observed the defendant commit a minor traffic violation and had reasonable articulable suspicion that the defendant was transporting drugs.

Agent Beck, a police officer with the Weber Morgan Narcotics Strike Force, received a trip from a confidential informant that Mr. Butler would be transporting methamphetamine that evening in a secret compartment in the door of his truck. The informant, who had provided credible tips in the past, described Mr. Butler’s truck and provided a specific address. Agent Burrell accompanied Agent Beck to the address. Agent Beck recognized the address as a suspected drug house and believed at least one person who lived there to be a narcotics dealer. The agents saw Mr. Butler arrive at the address in his truck and go inside. The informant then called Agent Beck to tell him that Mr. Butler had left with the drugs. The agents stopped Mr. Butler after they observed him fail to signal while pulling away from the curb. They searched his truck and found methamphetamine.

In the district court, Mr. Butler’s criminal defense lawyer made a motion to suppress the evidence. The court denied the motion. Mr. Butler appealed this ruling to the Utah Court of Appeals. There, Mr. Butler’s criminal defense attorney argued that Mr. Butler’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the stop, his detention after the stop, and the search of his vehicle.

Mr. Butler’s criminal defense attorney argued at the suppression hearing that there was insufficient evidence to justify a traffic stop based on Mr. Butler’s minor traffic violation. However, on appeal, Mr. Butler failed to marshal the evidence. To properly marshal, an appellant must present every scrap of evidence that supports the court’s finding and then point out the fatal flaw in that evidence.1 Instead of pointing out the fatal flaw, Mr. Butler reargued the credibility of the agents’ testimony. The district court had found the agents’ testimony to be credible, and an appellate court will not substitute its judgment for a district court’s on matters of witness credibility.2

The Utah Court of Appeals ruled that the traffic stop was constitutional based on the district court’s findings. A stop is justified under the Fourth Amendment when the police officer “observes the driver commit a traffic violation, or when the officer has a reasonable articulable suspicion that the driver committed or is about to commit a crime, such as transporting drugs.”3 Here, an officer observed Mr. Butler commit a traffic violation. Mr. Butler’s criminal defense lawyer argued on appeal that the scope of the stop was unreasonable based on the minor traffic violation. However, the officers also had reasonable suspicion that Mr. Butler was transporting drugs based on the information of the confidential informant and Agent Beck’s ability to personally corroborate some of the details.

Looking at the same facts and the totality of the circumstances, the Utah Court of Appeals also held that the scope of the stop, including Mr. Butler’s subsequent arrest, was constitutional.

The Utah Court of Appeals held that the search of Mr. Butler’s car was constitutional based on the automobile exception to the warrant requirements. An automobile can be searched without a warrant if the “car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband.”4 The court held that both factors were met in this case.

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