City of Devils Lake v. Lawrence, 20010063.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Dakota
Citation2002 ND 31,639 N.W.2d 466
Docket NumberNo. 20010063.,20010063.
PartiesCITY OF DEVILS LAKE, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. Darrell LAWRENCE, Defendant and Appellee.
Decision Date20 February 2002

Daniel Mack Traynor, City Prosecutor, Devils Lake, for plaintiff and appellant; submitted on brief.

Darrell Lawrence (no appearance), pro se, St. Michael.

SANDSTROM, Justice.

[¶ 1] The City of Devils Lake appealed from orders granting a suppression motion and dismissing a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol against Darrell Lawrence. We conclude the district court erred in ruling police officers had no reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity to stop Lawrence's vehicle, and we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I

[¶ 2] At 7:13 p.m. on September 3, 2000, Police Officers John Rose and Jason Toso, who were patrolling in separate vehicles, received a dispatch from the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center that there was a "fight that was going to begin" at Pop's Bar in Devils Lake. Officer Rose was the first to arrive at the scene, and he observed a male standing by the door to the bar and two other males entering a vehicle in the parking lot. No one else was in the parking lot. The man standing by the door to the bar was Conrad Houle, a person Officer Rose recognized as having been involved in "[p]ast fight calls." Houle motioned for Officer Rose to "come over" to him, and then informed Officer Rose he had engaged in a "verbal altercation" with the two men entering the vehicle. Officer Rose observed nothing indicating a physical fight had taken place. Officer Rose radioed Officer Toso, who had just entered the parking lot, that the vehicle leaving the parking lot was "involved" and "[w]e need to check this one out." Officer Rose testified:

Q Officer Rose, did he indicate that they were involved? What did he say to you?
A Um, he pointed — he indicated, ah, he pointed or told me verbally, that they were the ones that he was having this verbal altercation with. I think he said, like — something like, these are the ones you've got to talk too [sic] or I don't recall exactly. But he indicated to me that —
(THE COURT: I can't hear you, officer.)
A He did indicate to me that these — that this was the other party involved in some type of verbal altercation. Um, either —
(THE COURT: Verbal altercation is that what he said, verbal altercation?)
A Well, I don't believe — he didn't tell me that. But, I was kind of lead [sic] to believe that it was a verbal.
(THE COURT: No, no, what did he tell you to the best of your recollection?)
A I — I don't recall. I think he said, you need to talk to — he pointed at em. That these are the guys.
(THE COURT: Okay, did he indicate — did you — based — based on your understanding — your understanding was that if there was an altercation, it was verbal?)
A Yea.
....
Q Um, when you initially responded to this call, what was the call that you were responding too [sic]?
A I recall it was a um, fight that was about to begin call—kind of call.
Q But it wasn't described as a verbal fight?
A No, it was a — I think — that words are starting to be exchanged, and it looks like they are going to go outside and fight. I think that is what the initial — what we were responding too [sic].
Q Okay, and when you arrived um, had you had the opportunity to conduct any investigation with Mr. Houle outside of the bar up until the point that he pointed to this other vehicle?
A No — no, it was — I got out of my car, the other vehicle was leaving. I indicated — he indicated to me that they were involved. I — I —
Q So, this understanding that it was a verbal altercation came to you through the process of your investigation after the vehicle was stopped?
A Yeah. That's after I had a chance to talk to the RP.
....
(THE COURT: So, what was your understanding of what happened when you told the other officer to stop the vehicle?)
A Um, at that point when I told Officer Toso to stop the vehicle, I was — I really didn't have full understanding of what was going on. I just —
(THE COURT: Okay, it was just that this guy pointed, their [sic] involved, and you don't know what he said, though exactly?)
A No. He indicated to me that this was the other party involved in this possible — beginning of a fight.
(THE COURT: So, even to the best of your knowledge in the police report there was a possibility of a fight beginning? But, there was — you had no information that there was a fight going on?)
A No. I believe it came in as a fight was about to happen, and I didn't find out until — cause it all happened at the same time —
(THE COURT: Sure)
A — he pulled in, and he's indicating these guys are involved, check with them. I'll meet with this guy. We'll see what's going on.

[¶ 3] Officer Toso activated his emergency lights and stopped the vehicle to investigate before it left the parking lot. Officer Toso noticed the driver of the vehicle, Lawrence, had an odor of alcohol and asked him to sit in the back of his patrol car while he questioned the passenger for his side of the story. Lawrence later failed field sobriety tests and was arrested and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol in violation of Devils Lake Municipal Code § 10.46.030.

[¶ 4] Upon appeal of his municipal court conviction to district court under N.D.C.C. § 40-18-19, Lawrence moved to suppress evidence and dismiss the charge, arguing the officers had no reasonable suspicion that he was involved in any type of criminal activity when Officer Toso stopped Lawrence's vehicle in the bar's parking lot. The district court granted the suppression motion and dismissed the charge with prejudice, reasoning:

When Officer Rose arrived on scene an individual standing in the parking lot of the bar told him, that the defendant's vehicle, which was driving out of the lot, was involved. There was nothing that the police officer saw or heard that would infer or suggest that the defendant was involved in criminal activity. The only reasonable inference that could be drawn from what the police officer heard and observed from dispatch, and the man standing outside the bar, is that one or both of the individuals in the vehicle leaving the parking lot were involved in an argument. Arguing is not a crime. Based on the statement given by the individual in the parking lot, Officer Rose radioed Officer Toso who had just arrived on scene, to stop the defendant's vehicle. Police had no articulated suspicion that Mr. Lawrence or his passenger were involved in or were going to be participating in any criminal activity.

[¶ 5] The district court had jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 8, and N.D.C.C. § 27-05-06(4). The City's appeal is timely under N.D.R.App.P. 4(b). This Court has jurisdiction under N.D. Const. art. VI, § 6, and N.D.C.C. § 29-28-07(1).

II

[¶ 6] The City argues the district court erred in ruling the officers had no articulable and reasonable suspicion that Lawrence was involved in any criminal activity to justify the stop of his vehicle.

[¶ 7] When reviewing a district court's ruling on a motion to suppress, we defer to the district court's findings of fact and resolve conflicts in testimony in favor of affirmance. State v. Haverluk, 2000 ND 178, ¶ 7, 617 N.W.2d 652. We will affirm a trial court's decision on a motion to suppress if there is sufficient competent evidence capable of supporting the trial court's findings, and if its decision is not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. State v. Heitzmann, 2001 ND 136, ¶ 8, 632 N.W.2d 1. While we defer to the trial court's findings of fact, questions of law are fully reviewable. State v. Wanzek, 1999 ND 163, ¶ 5, 598 N.W.2d 811.

A

[¶ 8] To stop a moving vehicle for investigative purposes, an officer must have an articulable and reasonable suspicion that a law has been or is being violated. State v. Gregg, 2000 ND 154, ¶ 27, 615 N.W.2d 515. Reasonable suspicion for a stop exists when a reasonable person in the officer's position would be justified by some objective manifestation to suspect the defendant was, or was about to be, engaged in unlawful activity. State v. Kenner, 1997 ND 1, ¶ 8, 559 N.W.2d 538. Although the concept of reasonable suspicion is not readily reduced to a neat set of legal rules, we have held reasonable suspicion does require more than a "mere hunch." State v. Loh, 2000 ND 188, ¶ 5, 618 N.W.2d 477. In determining whether an investigative stop is valid, we use an objective standard and look to the totality of the circumstances. Id. at ¶¶ 9-13; City of Minot v. Johnson, 1999 ND 241, ¶ 5, 603 N.W.2d 485. In City of Fargo v. Ovind, 1998 ND 69, ¶ 9, 575 N.W.2d 901 (citations omitted), we explained:

We do not require an officer to isolate single factors which signal a potential violation of the law; but instead, "officers are to assess the situation as it unfolds and, based upon inferences and deductions drawn from their experience and training, make the determination whether all of the circumstances viewed together create a reasonable suspicion of potential criminal activity." When assessing reasonableness, we consider inferences and deductions an investigating officer would make which may elude a layperson.

[¶ 9] When, as here, one officer relays a directive or request for action to another officer without relaying the underlying facts and circumstances, the directing officer's knowledge is imputed to the acting officer. Kenner, 1997 ND 1, ¶ 11, 559 N.W.2d 538. The ultimate conclusion of whether the facts support a reasonable and articulable suspicion is fully reviewable on appeal. Gregg, 2000 ND 154, ¶ 20, 615 N.W.2d 515.

B

[¶ 10] This case is somewhat similar to Ovind, 1998 ND 69, 575 N.W.2d 901. In Ovind, police officers responded at 1:45 a.m. to a dispatch reporting a fight at a Taco Bell restaurant. The first officer arrived at the scene between forty-five seconds to one minute after the dispatch and observed two vehicles in the parking lot. One...

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