396 F.3d 1132 (10th Cir. 2005), 04-4072, United States v. Tibbetts

Docket Nº:04-4072.
Citation:396 F.3d 1132
Party Name:UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Jesse James TIBBETTS, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:February 02, 2005
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

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396 F.3d 1132 (10th Cir. 2005)

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant,


Jesse James TIBBETTS, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 04-4072.

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

February 2, 2005

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Michael S. Lee, Assistant United States Attorney (Paul M. Warner, United States Attorney with him on the brief), Salt Lake City, UT, for the Plaintiff-Appellant.

Scott Keith Wilson, Assistant Federal Public Defender (Steven B. Killpack, Federal Public Defender with him on the brief), Salt Lake City, UT, for the Defendant-Appellee.

Before KELLY, HOLLOWAY, and LUCERO, Circuit Judges.

LUCERO, Circuit Judge.

In this interlocutory appeal, the United States contests the district court decision to suppress evidence seized from Jesse James Tibbetts' Toyota 4Runner. In January 2003, Tibbetts and Christopher Doherty were traveling east along Utah's Interstate 80 ("I-80") in a Toyota 4Runner when they were stopped by Utah Highway Patrol Sergeant Jeff Chugg for what he considered were three violations of Utah's traffic code. Suspecting that Tibbetts and Doherty were transporting narcotics, Chugg asked for and received Tibbetts' permission to search the 4Runner. During this search, Chugg discovered a large quantity of marijuana. Following the government's indictment of Tibbetts, the district court granted a motion by Tibbetts to suppress the evidence and found the stop unjustified. The district court also determined

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that Chugg's reasonable articulable suspicion, if any existed, was nullified by his failure to address the purported violation with Tibbetts. Of the three purported violations relied upon by Chugg to justify the stop, the United States appeals the district court's determination that there was no basis to suspect a violation of Utah's "mudflap" regulation, and the district court's determination on "nullification." We exercise jurisdiction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3731 and 28 U.S.C. § 1291, and we VACATE the district court's order and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


On the morning of January 7, 2003, Sergeant Chugg and his Belgian Malanois K-9 Claudio, both members of the special drug interdiction team of the Utah Highway Patrol, observed a Toyota 4Runner traveling eastbound along I-80. As it passed, Chugg noticed something gleaming off the windshield causing him to pull away from the median and follow the Toyota to get a closer look. In pulling alongside the 4Runner, Chugg observed a silver necklace hanging from the rear-view mirror and what appeared to be a series of wires beginning at the driver's door and crossing the top of the windshield in the driver's line of sight. Chugg believed these two conditions violated Utah's traffic code. While following the 4Runner, Chugg also observed that it appeared to have after-market tires that were wider than the factory mudguards. Chugg also believed that this violated Utah's traffic code as the mudguards did not fully cover the tires.

A check of the 4Runner's California license plate numbers revealed that the vehicle was registered to an Anita Tapia.1 Chugg further observed that the 4Runner was being driven by two men, and, based on his experience and training as a drug interdiction agent, decided that the position of the cargo in the vehicle's rear section was consistent with drug trafficking.

After stopping the 4Runner, Chugg explained to the driver, Tibbetts, that he was being pulled over because the silver necklace hanging from the mirror was causing a glimmer. Tibbetts immediately removed the necklace from the rear view mirror. Chugg did not mention the other two purported violations--the wiring across the windshield or the undersized mudflap issue. While talking to Tibbetts, Chugg noticed a strong odor of air freshener and laundry detergent, which he associated with a commonly used means to conceal the odor of narcotics. Chugg then requested Tibbetts' driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. During their inspection, both Tibbetts and his passenger, Doherty, appeared very nervous. When asked about the car's ownership, Tibbetts responded that it was owned by his girlfriend Anita.

On request by the officer, Tibbetts proceeded to the patrol car, where he gave inconsistent answers to Chugg's questions about Tibbetts' relationship with Anita Tapia, his travel plans, and his relationship with Doherty. Chugg considered many of Tibbetts' responses to be implausible or incredible, which heightened his suspicions. Returning to the 4Runner, Chugg questioned Doherty and received additional responses inconsistent with those of Tibbetts. Chugg asked Doherty if he could search the 4Runner, and Doherty told him it was not his car and he could not consent to the search. After asking Tibbetts if

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there were drugs or weapons in the vehicle, Chugg asked him for permission to search the 4Runner. Tibbetts responded, "I don't care." Chugg proceeded to conduct a search and ultimately discovered a large quantity of marijuana, which became the source of the indictment2 and the focus of the suppression motion at issue in this appeal.

In his motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the search, Tibbetts argued both that the initial stop was illegal and that the scope of the detention exceeded the purpose of the stop. Specifically, Tibbetts contended that none of the three purported violations of Utah's traffic code actually were violations, and further, that continuing the detention beyond the time necessary to address these purported violations exceeded the permissible scope of the detention. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court determined that the purported violations involving the silver necklace and the wiring did not constitute actual violations of Utah law, and therefore could not justify the stop. The United States does not appeal that portion of the district court's ruling. At stake in this appeal is the district court's disposition of the third purported violation--the "mudflap" violation--which the district court determined did not support Chugg's traffic stop. The district court based its determination on two factors: (1) the record did not support a finding that this provision was violated; and (2) Chugg's "reasonable articulable suspicion regarding the mudflap violation was nullified because of his failure to address the issue with Tibbetts." United States v. Tibbetts, 319 F.Supp.2d 1254, 1259 (D.Utah 2004). It is this ruling that we consider today at the government's request.


When reviewing a district court decision to suppress evidence, we must accept the court's findings of fact unless we conclude the findings were clearly erroneous. See United States v. Cervine, 347 F.3d 865, 868 (10th Cir. 2003). "Evaluation of the credibility of witnesses, the weight to be given the evidence, and inferences to be drawn from the evidence are for the district court." United States v. Hernandez, 93 F.3d 1493, 1498 (10th Cir. 1996). We review the evidence in the light most favorable to the court's findings, and "review de novo the ultimate determination of reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment." Cervine, 347 F.3d at 868.

A traffic stop is a "seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, "even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief." Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979). Because an ordinary traffic stop is analogous to an investigative detention, we analyze such stops under the principles pertaining to investigatory detentions set forth in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). United States v. Botero-Ospina, 71 F.3d 783, 786 (10th Cir. 1995).

We conduct a two-step inquiry when determining the constitutionality of a traffic stop, considering first whether the officer's action was justified at its inception, and second, whether it was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place. See id. at 786. Our focus in this case is on the first inquiry. "An initial traffic stop is valid ... not only if based on

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an observed traffic violation, but also if the officer has a reasonable articulable suspicion that a traffic or equipment violation has occurred or is occurring." United States v. Hunnicutt, 135 F.3d 1345, 1348 (10th Cir. 1998). The validity of a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment turns on whether "this particular officer had reasonable suspicion that this particular motorist violated any one of the multitude of applicable traffic and equipment regulations of the jurisdiction." United States v. Vercher, 358 F.3d 1257, 1261 (10th Cir. 2004). So long as that standard is satisfied, it is irrelevant that the officer may have had subjective motives for stopping the vehicle. See United States v. Callarman, 273 F.3d 1284, 1286 (10th Cir. 2001); Hunnicutt, 135 F.3d at 1348; Botero-Ospina, 71 F.3d at 787.

Speaking to the first step of the Terry analysis, the government argues that Chugg had a reasonable articulable suspicion of a violation of Utah Code § 41-6-150.103 because Chugg noticed that the 4Runner's mud flaps were not wide enough to cover the vehicle's oversized...

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