What if I’m Pulled Over Because the Police Only Thought I was Breaking the Law?

October 8, 2013

This case arises from a police officer’s stop of Joshua Lynn Pitts’s vehicle in November 2011 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

After he was indicted, Pitts filed a motion to suppress, and the trial court held a hearing on the motion. Officer Higgins, a 14-year veteran of the Murfreesboro PD and a member of its DUI Enforcement Unit for 11 years, testified that he stopped Pitts for weaving in and out of his lane and because his brake light was not working. When Higgins approached the vehicle, he could smell alcohol on Pitts’s breath and could saw his eyes were bloodshot. Higgins testified that Pitts failed the field sobriety tests.  Pitts arrested for driving under the influence [Pitts’s blood alcohol content (“BAC”) was later found to be .14]. After hearing the evidence, the trial court denied Pitts’s motion to suppress and found him guilty of DUI and DUI with a BAC over .08%. The trial court merged the second count with the DUI count.

On appeal, Pitts claimed that the trial court erred when it denied his motion to suppress the evidence from the traffic stop. He said that Higgins activated his blue lights before he saw the broken brake light on Pitts’s vehicle, so the brake light couldn’t be the legal basis for the stop.

Judge Robert W. Wedemeyer of the Court of Criminal Appeals wrote that the State needed to show the search was conducted pursuant to one of the narrow exceptions to the warrant requirement. One of these is 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 determined based upon all of the circumstances of the event. The judge stated that the police may stop a vehicle if they have either probable cause or 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 there are independent grounds for the stop.

Officer Higgins’ testimony was credible and the squad car video supported that he “thought” Pitts’s brake light was inoperable. Judge Wedemeyer held that this was a sufficient legal basis for the stop. This infraction was alone sufficient to provide the officer with the reasonable suspicion needed to stop the vehicle.

The trial court’s decision was affirmed.  State v. Pitts, Slip Copy, 2013 WL 5310476 (Tenn.Crim.App. Sept. 20, 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 in 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 at kpatterson@kgplawfirm.com to talk to him about your legal matter.

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