Does it Matter if a Traffic Stop and Sobriety Tests aren’t recorded by Police Video?

November 11, 2013

Olivia Epps pleaded guilty to first offense DUI and was sentenced but reserved a certified question of law on the legality of the traffic stop that led to her arrest. After she was indicted, Epps filed a motion to suppress, alleging that the officer who stopped her lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause justifying the stop and that the officer’s request for a blood test was unsupported by the field sobriety tests.

At the suppression hearing, no witnesses were presented, but the trial court analyzed the transcript of the preliminary hearing and the video recording from the officer’s car. At the that hearing, Murfreesboro Police Officer Kenneth White testified that he first saw the front wheels of Epps’s car stop past the “stop bar” at an intersection around 2 a.m. (which is considered running a light). As he continued to follow Epps, her car crossed the center line twice, crossed the right fog line twice, and went on the shoulder. He said her car crossed into the adjacent lane of traffic, which was traveling in the same direction. At that point, the officer initiated the traffic stop.

White testified that after he approached Epps’s car, he asked for her driver’s license, and Epps fumbled for it. He smelled alcohol on her, and she had glassy, bloodshot eyes, and slurred speech.  Officer White asked Epps to get out of the car and perform a series of field sobriety tests. White said that although Epps completed some of the tests satisfactorily, he concluded that she was too impaired to drive. He asked her to submit to a blood test and she agreed.  Results showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.18.

The video recording from Officer White’s police cruiser failed to show her stopping past the stop bar and crossing the center line twice but showed her car crossing the fog line once. With regard to the field sobriety tests, the recording skipped and was difficult to view before Epps left her car. The recording showed Epps swaying slightly during two field sobriety tests. The recording ended abruptly before Epps performed the one-leg stand test and the walk and turn test.

The trial court denied Epps’s motion to suppress, crediting White’s preliminary hearing testimony, even though the video recording didn’t confirm everything he witnessed. The court found that White had reasonable suspicion to stop the car based on his observations and that based on her performance during the field sobriety tests, White had reasonable grounds to ask her to take a BAC test.

The trial court filed an order stating that the plea was subject to the certified question of law as to whether the stop of Epps prior to her arrest was based upon a reasonable suspicion she was engaged in unlawful activity justifying the stop, and whether, subsequent to the stop, White gathered added evidence giving him reasonable grounds to request her to submit to a blood test to determine if she was under the influence of any substance as required by state statutes.

Epps argued that the trial court erred by denying her motion to suppress because the video recording failed to support Officer White’s preliminary hearing testimony and because the video didn’t show evidence justifying the stop. Judge Tipton stated that a trial court’s factual findings on a motion to suppress are conclusive on appeal unless the evidence preponderates against them.  Questions about the credibility of the witnesses, the weight and value of the evidence, and resolution of conflicts in the evidence, the judge opined, are matters entrusted to the trial judge as the trier of fact.

Judge Tipton also noted that the U.S. and Tennessee Constitutions protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. Such searches are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment with only to a few specific and well-defined exceptions. Judge Tipton explained that an exception to the warrant requirement exists when a police officer conducts an investigatory stop based on a reasonable suspicion that a criminal offense has been or is about to be committed. Reasonable suspicion is “a particularized and objective basis” for suspecting the subject of a stop of criminal activity, and is determined based on the totality of the circumstances of the incident.  The police may stop a car if they have an “articulable and reasonable suspicion” that the vehicle or its occupants are subject to seizure for violation of the law. An officer’s subjective intention for stopping a vehicle is irrelevant, as long as independent grounds exist for the detention. When a traffic stop is initiated based on reasonable suspicion, an officer’s actions must be “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” The detention “must be temporary and last no longer than necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.”

Judge Tipton and the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that the evidence didn’t weigh against the trial court’s conclusion that reasonable suspicion justified the traffic stop. The officer’s credited testimony showed that he saw Epps’s car stop past the stop bar at an intersection, which caught his attention. He then saw her erratic driving which caused him to initiate a traffic stop. The trial court credited the officer’s testimony, as even though the recording didn’t confirm White’s testimony in its entirety, it did not contradict it.

State v. Epps, Slip Copy, 2013 WL 1315960 (Tenn.Crim.App. April 02, 2013)

 

Questions about DUI’s  suppression hearings, or other issues in a criminal case?

Kevin Patterson has been providing professional legal services to individuals and businesses throughout the greater Memphis area since 1983.  Kevin will treat your legal issue with the dedicated service and attention it deserves. Call Kevin at (901) 300-4820 or e-mail him at kpatterson@kgplawfirm.com to talk to him about your legal matter.

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