Tint Statute OK for Traffic Stop When Drugs Found

December 9, 2013

After a traffic stop based upon the possible violation of Tennessee’s vehicle window tint statute, Shaun Davidson and Deedra Kizer were charged with several drug offenses. Davidson was indicted for possession with intent to sell or deliver 0.5 grams or more of cocaine in a drug-free zone. Kizer was indicted for possession or casual exchange of hydrocodone. Both were indicted for possession or casual exchange of marijuana. The trial court granted Davidson and Kizer’s motion to suppress evidence, ruling that § 55–9–107(c) was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The case was dismissed, but the State appealed, arguing that the statute was constitutional.

A police officer stopped Davidson and Kizer because he believed that the tint on their vehicle’s windows was too dark. He smelled marijuana and searched of the car.  He discovered cocaine, marijuana, and hydrocodone. Davidson and Kizer moved to suppress the evidence based on a violation of their Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the police officer had reasonable suspicion to support an investigatory stop. However, the two amended their motion to suppress to include an argument that the window tint statute, specifically subsection (c), was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The statute says:

It is probable cause for a full-time, salaried police officer of this state to detain a motor vehicle being operated on the public roads, streets or highways of this state when the officer has a reasonable belief that the motor vehicle is in violation of subdivision (a)(1), for the purpose of conducting a field comparison test.

The trial court agreed with Davidson and Kizer and granted their motion to suppress, resulting in the dismissal of the case. It ruled that the statute was vague because it didn’t provide guidelines for the police to determine when to initiate an investigatory stop. Trial court ruled that the statute was overbroad because it allowed law enforcement to stop citizens “at-will” to determine if their window tint violates the statute. Tennessee Code § 55–9–107(a)(1) states:

It is unlawful for any person to operate, upon a public highway, street or road, any motor vehicle in which any window that has a visible light transmittance equal to, but not less than, that specified in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 205, codified in 49 CFR 571.205, has been altered, treated or replaced by the affixing, application or installation of any material that:

(A) Has a visible light transmittance of less than 35%; or

(B) With the exception of the manufacturer’s standard installed shade band, reduces the visible light transmittance in the windshield below 70%.

On appeal, the State argued that the statute’s reasonableness requirement was a legitimate guideline for law enforcement. Judge Roger A. Page wrote the opinion for the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.  He quoted earlier caselaw which said that on appeal, the court must “indulge every presumption and resolve every doubt in favor of the constitutionality of the statute when reviewing a statute for a possible constitutional infirmity.” Judge Page cited earlier decisions that held “[f]or a constitutional challenge to a statute based on overbreadth, the challenger must show that the statute “reaches a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct” and “must then ‘demonstrate from the text of the law and actual fact that there are a substantial number of instances where the law cannot be applied constitutionally.’”

Davidson and Kizer’s central argument was that § 55–9–107(c) provided no guidelines for law enforcement officers to determine when to detain a person for a window tint violation, which  created a situation where the statute is enforced arbitrarily. However, Judge Page agreed with the State which argued that the statute incorporated a reasonableness standard.  The Criminal Court of Appeals concluded this was a sufficient guideline for the enforcement of the statute..

The United States Supreme Court and the Tennessee Supreme Court have repeatedly held that a brief, investigatory detention is permissible under search and seizure law when an officer has a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Trial courts must examine the totality of the circumstances when evaluating whether an officer has established the requisite level of suspicion to justify a brief investigatory stop. Judge Page reasoned that reasonableness was a thoroughly legitimate standard for police officers to follow in the context of search and seizure law. The requirement that the officer have a “reasonable belief” that a vehicle is in violation of § 55–9–107(a)(1) is an objective standard in accord with the federal and state constitutions. Judge Page said that the Criminal Court of Appeals had upheld other statutes based upon the reasonableness standard.  The appellate court concluded that the trial court erred by ruling that the statute was unconstitutionally vague.

Davidson and Kizer’s also presented an overbreadth challenge to the statute, claiming that the statute created a situation where law enforcement officers could stop any vehicle at any time to investigate the vehicle’s window tint—even when the window tint was legal. Judge Page stated that the statute specifically stated that any detention based on § 55–9–107(a)(1) must be justified by a reasonable belief that the tint violates the statute. The fact that police officers may briefly detain someone who actually has legal window tint is a risk allowed under search and seizure law. The authority of the officers to conduct a brief, investigatory stop is “narrowly drawn,” and does not create a “stop-at-will” standard as argued by appellees because officers must justify any stop with “specific and articulable facts supporting a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.” The appellate court concluded that Davidson and Kizer failed to show that the statute “reaches a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct” and have not “demonstrate[d] from the text of the law and actual fact that there are a substantial number of instances where the law cannot be applied constitutionally.”

The decision was reversed, the indictment reinstated, and the case remanded.

State v. Davidson, Slip Copy, 2013 WL 6188078 (Tenn.Crim.App. Nov. 26, 2013).


Questions about vehicle searches 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.  When you ask Kevin to assist you with your legal issue, he will treat your case with the dedicated service and attention it deserves. Call Kevin at 901.300.4820 or e-mail at kpatterson@kgplawfirm.com to discuss your legal matter. We look forward to hearing from you.


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