State of Utah v. Vance Morris

2011 UT 40
Filed July 22, 2011

The Utah Supreme Court held that if a police officer makes a reasonable mistake about the grounds when initiating a traffic stop, the officer may make contact with the driver to explain the mistake and end the stop. If during this brief encounter with the driver new reasonable suspicion of criminal activity immediately arises, the officer may continue the stop.

Highway patrol trooper Travis Williams was traveling behind driver Vance Morris on a two lane highway at night. Trooper Williams noticed Mr. Morris’s vehicle bumping the white fog line, and suspecting that the driver might be impaired, he began to record the driving pattern with his dashboard video camera. Trooper Williams then noticed that Mr. Morris’s vehicle did not seem to have a license plate, so he initiated a traffic stop. As the two cars pulled to the side of the road, the trooper’s spotlight illuminated a temporary registration tag in the corner of Mr. Morris’s window that was not previously not visible in the dark. Trooper Williams approached Mr. Morris’s car, and Mr. Morris rolled down his window and offered him his license and registration and asked the trooper if he needed to see his proof of insurance. Trooper Williams testified that as the two spoke he smelled alcohol through the smoke of the cigar Mr. Morris was smoking. He asked Mr. Morris to exit the vehicle and performed field sobriety tests. He determined that Mr. Morris was driving under the influence and arrested him. Meanwhile, another officer arrived on the scene. The second officer searched Mr. Morris’s car and found drugs and drug paraphernalia. Mr. Morris was charged with driving under the influence, driving with an open container of alcohol, possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute, and possession of drug paraphilia.

Mr. Morris’s criminal defense attorneys filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the car on the grounds that when Trooper Williams saw the temporary registration tag in Mr. Morris’s window his reasonable suspicion dissipated and any further detention of Mr. Morris was a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The district court denied the motion. Mr. Morris’s criminal defense attorneys appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals. The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that the stop was not justified after Trooper Williams saw the registration tag and that constitutional rights are more important than any confusion a motorist might experience if an officer does not explain why he was mistaken in initiating a traffic stop. The State filed a petition for certiorari on this issue with the Utah Supreme Court.

The Utah Supreme Court held that the traffic stop and further detention of Mr. Williams were reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. A traffic stop must be “justified at its inception” and “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.” The officer must allow the person to leave as soon as the purpose for the stop is concluded unless during the stop new reasonable suspicion of criminal activity arises. The stop in this case was justified at its inception because Trooper Williams initiated it based on a reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation, the absence of a license plate, had occurred. “A factual belief that is mistaken, but held reasonably and in good faith, can provide reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop.” Addressing the issue for the first time, the court held that after an officer stops a driver based on an objectively reasonable suspicion that turns to be mistaken, the officer may approach the driver to explain the mistake and tell the driver he or she is free to go. Mr. Morris’s criminal defense attorneys argued that in such cases the officer has no right to approach a driver and should simply waive them on. The court, however, reasoned that the “touchstone” of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, and it would be unreasonable and undesirable to leave motorists in fear, wondering why they had been stopped. In an effort to limit this holding, the court explained:

First, our holding is limited to situations where officers have objectively reasonable suspicion. It does not allow police officers to rely on subjective criteria, hunches, or assumptions, nor will it facilitate fabricated excuses to detain drivers. Instead, district courts should evaluate the credibility of the officer and any record of the encounter to confirm the basis for the stop was objectively reasonable. Second, our holding entitles the officer to approach the driver for only one purpose: to explain his good faith mistake. This encounter must be brief; the officer is not constitutionally entitled to pepper the driver with unrelated inquiries, nor may he ask for identification, registration, or proof of insurance. The officer may further detain the driver only if he can point to new specific and articulable facts” that lead him to reasonably believe criminal activity is immediately apparent.

Under this new rule, the court held that it was reasonable for Trooper Williams to further detain Mr. Morris because immediately upon approaching Mr. Morris he detected the odor of alcohol, creating new reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Mr. Morris’s criminal defense attorneys argued that Trooper Williams had not actually smelled alcohol until after he and Mr. Morris walked to the back of the car. As the court was unable to determine from the video whether this was the truth, the court was forced to rely on the district court’s findings of fact. However, the supreme court pointed out in a footnote that if indeed Trooper Williams had not detected the odor of alcohol immediately, his detention of Mr. Morris would have been unjustified.

1. State v. Baker, 2010 UT 18, ¶ 12, 229 P.3d 650.
2. Id. ¶ 13.
3 State v. Applegate, 2008 UT 63, ¶ 10, 194 P.3d 925.
4 State v. Morris, 2011 UT 40, ¶ 26.

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