People v. Chavez-Barragan

Decision Date29 February 2016
Docket NumberSupreme Court Case No. 15SA286
Citation365 P.3d 981
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff–Appellant v. Amadeo CHAVEZ–BARRAGAN, Defendant–Appellee.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Attorneys for PlaintiffAppellant: Brittny B. Lewton, District Attorney, Thirteenth Judicial District, Robert C. James, Deputy District Attorney, Fort Morgan, Colorado

Attorney for DefendantAppellee: Frank E. Moya, Denver, Colorado

En Banc

JUSTICE HOOD delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Amadeo Chavez–Barragan is charged with possessing methamphetamine with intent to distribute. After the trial court granted his suppression motion, the People filed this interlocutory appeal. Because we conclude reasonable suspicion supported the initial stop, we reverse the trial court's order and remand for further proceedings.

I. Facts and Procedural History1

¶ 2 In October 2014, Colorado and federal law enforcement officials were investigating an individual they suspected of distributing drugs. Chavez–Barragan's ties to this target brought him similar scrutiny. Agents observed them together over a morning and early afternoon, but the two split up later in the day at a service station in Denver. Chavez–Barragan left the service station driving a semi-truck, and law enforcement followed him as he headed east on I–76.

¶ 3 Around 2:30 a.m., Drug Enforcement Administration agent Sara McCaslin radioed Morgan County Deputy Shawna Ponce, who was on patrol in nearby Brush. McCaslin described the rig she was following and explained she thought it might contain drugs or maybe cash. However, in her own estimation, she did not have "probable cause" to stop Chavez–Barragan to investigate her drug suspicions, so she asked Officer Ponce to follow the truck and try to develop a basis for a traffic stop.

¶ 4 In her marked patrol car, Officer Ponce merged onto the highway behind the truck. Construction on this section of the interstate had closed certain lanes. A row of pylons formed a makeshift center line, and a row of barrels stood along the shoulder.

¶ 5 Almost immediately after merging, Officer Ponce observed the trailer "riding" the white fog line that separates the right lane from the shoulder. She then saw the tires of the trailer cross over the line by less than a foot. This happened twice. Officer Ponce believed she had observed a lane violation under section 42–4–1007(1)(a), C.R.S. (2015), but she did not immediately stop the truck. Instead, she followed it another five or six miles through the rest of the construction zone until reaching a place where it was safe to stop. Over that span, she did not witness any other infractions.

¶ 6 When the vehicles cleared the construction zone, Officer Ponce switched on her overhead lights. Chavez–Barragan pulled over, and a subsequent search of the truck's engine compartment revealed methamphetamine. Chavez–Barragan then made incriminating statements.

¶ 7 The People filed a criminal complaint, alleging possession with intent to distribute under section 18–18–405, C.R.S. (2015), and Chavez–Barragan filed motions to suppress the drugs and his statements. At an evidentiary hearing, the People first argued that there were sufficient grounds to stop Chavez–Barragan to investigate a drug offense, but the trial court rejected that argument, and the People do not advance it here. The People also argued that the initial stop was justified because Chavez–Barragan committed a traffic violation. The trial court spurned this argument as well, concluding, with guidance from several federal cases, that the truck's "momentary, isolated, and minimal" encroachments over the fog line in an unlit construction zone at night did not provide sufficient grounds for a traffic stop. The court granted Chavez–Barragan's motions to suppress, and the People filed this interlocutory appeal pursuant to section 16–12–102(2), C.R.S. (2015), and C.A.R. 4.1.2

II. Analysis

¶ 8 We first set forth the standard of review and relevant Fourth Amendment principles. Next, we interpret the traffic law at issue and conclude that it does not establish a bright-line rule. Instead, section 42–4–1007(1)(a) requires a vehicle to be driven in one lane "as nearly as practicable." Therefore, any assessment of whether the statute was violated, and thus whether there was at least a reasonable suspicion to stop the driver, requires consideration of all the circumstances. Applying this analysis to the trial court's factual findings, we conclude that an objectively reasonable suspicion supported the stop of Chavez–Barragan. As a result, we reverse the trial court's order.

A. Standard of Review

¶ 9 On appeal, a trial court's order suppressing evidence obtained in violation of constitutional protections presents mixed questions of law and fact. People v. Munoz–Gutierrez, 2015 CO 9, ¶ 14, 342 P.3d 439, 443. We accept the trial court's findings of historic fact if those findings are supported by competent evidence, but we assess the legal significance of the facts de novo. Id. Ultimately, we determine whether a seizure was reasonable. See People v. Kluhsman, 980 P.2d 529, 534 (Colo.1999). Related issues of statutory construction we review de novo. Munoz–Gutierrez, ¶ 14, 342 P.3d at 443.

B. Seizures for Traffic Violations

¶ 10 Traffic stops implicate federal and state constitutional protections against unreasonable seizure. See U.S. Const. amends. IV, XIV ; Colo. Const. art. II, § 7 ; People v. Rodriguez, 945 P.2d 1351, 1359 (Colo.1997) ; see also Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979). But a brief, investigatory seizure is justifiable when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity "has occurred, is taking place, or is about to take place." People v. Ingram, 984 P.2d 597, 603 (Colo.1999). Suspicion of even a minor traffic offense can provide the basis for a stop.

¶ 11 In Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996), the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a test that asked "whether a police officer, acting reasonably, would have made the stop for the reason given." Similarly, we have remarked, "[A]n officer's subjective motives for stopping a driver are irrelevant in determining whether an officer had reasonable suspicion." People v. Vaughn, 2014 CO 71, ¶ 11, 334 P.3d 226, 229 (citing People v. Vissarriagas, 2012 CO 48, ¶ 9, 278 P.3d 915, 917–18 ). Thus, an officer with "an objectively reasonable basis to believe that a driver has committed a traffic offense" is justified in making a stop. Id.

¶ 12 Of course, to suspect criminal activity is to suspect a violation of a law. Whether an officer's suspicion is reasonable thus depends on the meaning and scope of the underlying prohibition. Therefore, assessments of probable cause or reasonable suspicion require an initial interpretation of the statute allegedly violated. See, e.g., People v. Thornton, 929 P.2d 729, 731–32, 735 (Colo.1996) (holding that, under the proper construction of the escape statute, probable cause existed to believe the defendant was "in custody" before fleeing); People v. Hrapski, 658 P.2d 1367, 1368–69 (Colo.1983) (concluding there was no probable cause to believe the defendant violated the contraband statute because the non-firing bullet he possessed was not a "dangerous instrument" under the law).

¶ 13 Here, the parties advance opposing interpretations of the pertinent traffic law. Before we can answer whether Chavez–Barragan's driving measured up, we must know what the statute requires his driving to be measured by. Only then can we determine whether Officer Ponce had a reasonable suspicion that Chavez–Barragan committed a violation. We therefore turn to the statute.

C. Section 42–4–1007(1)(a)

¶ 14 The critical traffic provision in this case provides in relevant part:

(1) Whenever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic ...
(a) A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.

§ 42–4–1007(1)(a) (emphasis added).3

¶ 15 Chavez–Barragan points out that the law's command is not absolute; it merely requires that a driver stay in his lane "as nearly as practicable." He argues that, under the circumstances, he complied and that the trial court was right to conclude Officer Ponce lacked a reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop him.

¶ 16 The People contend our caselaw conclusively establishes that "a driver whose vehicle touches the white fog line a single time is guilty of violating" the statute. They assert the trial court disregarded binding precedent, namely People v. Ramos, 13 P.3d 295 (Colo.2000), and wrongly looked to federal caselaw for guidance.

¶ 17 Ramos is not up to the task the People assign it here. While it was another interlocutory appeal involving a truck stopped for weaving on eastbound I–76 and a search that turned up drugs, the substance of the legal dispute in Ramos was not the justification for the initial stop; it was the lawfulness of the driver's continued detention after the stop. Id. at 296–97. Apart from footnoting that "[d]riving outside the boundaries of a marked lane constitutes a class A traffic infraction," id. at 296 n. 1 (citing § 42–4–1007(2), 11 C.R.S. (1999) ), we had no occasion to cite, let alone construe, the statute. Accepting as given the lawfulness of the stop there does not compel the conclusion that the stop was reasonable here; Ramos set down no per se rule. Likewise, Rodriguez, which we cited throughout Ramos, addressed the legality of a detention following a stop for weaving, but it did not address the validity of the initial stop. See Rodriguez, 945 P.2d at 1358 n. 4 (reciting the issues on certiorari review, which assumed "a valid stop"). Because Ramos does not control, the trial court was right to seek other authority.

¶ 18 Indeed, its investigation of Tenth Circuit cases made...

To continue reading

Request your trial
19 cases
  • People v. McKnight
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court
    • May 20, 2019
    ...And "[s]uspicion of even a minor traffic offense can provide the basis for a stop." People v. Chavez-Barragan , 2016 CO 16, ¶ 10, 365 P.3d 981, 983.¶53 Two of the judges on the division below agreed that Kilo's sniff was a search requiring reasonable suspicion after looking back to the reas......
  • People v. Ambrose
    • United States
    • Colorado Court of Appeals
    • July 23, 2020
    ...coming from the area where the backup light was located was enough to justify the stop. See People v. Chavez-Barragan , 2016 CO 16, ¶ 10, 365 P.3d 981 ("Suspicion of even a minor traffic offense can provide the basis for a stop.").¶ 13 We are not persuaded by Mr. Ambrose's argument that the......
  • People v. Ambrose
    • United States
    • Colorado Court of Appeals
    • May 6, 2021
    ...coming from the area where the backup light was located was enough to justify the stop. See People v. Chavez-Barragan , 2016 CO 16, ¶ 10, 365 P.3d 981 ("Suspicion of even a minor traffic offense can provide the basis for a stop.").¶ 15 We are not persuaded by Mr. Ambrose's argument that the......
  • People v. Davis
    • United States
    • Colorado Supreme Court
    • April 8, 2019
    ...of the facts de novo." People v. Burnett , 2019 CO 2, ¶ 13, 432 P.3d 617, 620 (quoting People v. Chavez-Barragan , 2016 CO 16, ¶ 9, 365 P.3d 981, 983 ).B. Searches and Cell Phones ¶15 The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable government searches an......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT