People v. Lucynski

Decision Date26 July 2022
Docket NumberSC 162833
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Argued April 26, 2022

David A. Lucynski was charged in the 71B District Court with operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OWI), MCL 257.625(9)(c); driving with a suspended license, MCL 257.904(3)(b); and operating a vehicle with an open container of alcohol in the vehicle, MCL 257.624a(1). On a January morning, Tuscola County Sheriff's Deputy Ryan Robinson observed two cars stopped in the middle of the road; the vehicles were facing opposite directions with the drivers' windows next to one another, and the drivers appeared to be talking to one another with their windows down. One of the vehicles was defendant's car. Robinson testified at the preliminary examination that he believed that the vehicles were impeding traffic in violation of MCL 257.676b, even though there were no other vehicles on the road at the time. Robinson also testified that he thought a drug transaction might have occurred. Robinson followed defendant in a marked patrol vehicle and turned onto the same one-lane driveway that defendant had entered, parking a few feet behind defendant's car and blocking the only path of egress. Neither the siren nor the emergency lights on Robinson's vehicle were activated. When Robinson exited his patrol car, defendant was standing next to the driver's side door of his car, facing Robinson. Robinson immediately asked whether defendant lived there, and defendant responded that it was a friend's house as he walked toward the deputy. Robinson asked defendant if defendant had his driver's license, to which defendant replied in the negative; upon Robinson's further questioning, defendant responded that he did not have a valid driver's license. Robinson testified that because he smelled the odor of marijuana and alcohol emanating from defendant and noticed that defendant's eyes were bloodshot, he proceeded to investigate whether defendant was intoxicated. Defendant admitted to smoking marijuana about 20 minutes earlier and to consuming alcohol during the day. Defendant then consented to a search of his vehicle, and Robinson found both marijuana and an open container of alcohol inside. Robinson performed several field-sobriety tests, and defendant was arrested. At the preliminary examination, defendant's attorney asked to submit briefing to challenge the validity of the stop under MCL 257.676b and to argue that the evidence obtained by the police should be excluded. The district court, Jason E Bitzer, J., allowed briefing and later held that the prosecution failed to prove that Robinson had sufficient cause to initiate the stop. The court held that MCL 257.676b(1) could not be violated without a showing that traffic was actually impeded in some way. Accordingly, the court held that all evidence obtained from the stop would be inadmissible in any proceeding moving forward, and it dismissed the OWI charge. The prosecution sought leave to appeal in the Tuscola Circuit Court, and the court, Amy Gierhart, J denied the application. The prosecution then sought leave to appeal in the Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals granted the application, limiting the issues to those raised in the application. Despite this, the Court of Appeals resolved the appeal based on a legal theory that the parties had not raised in the trial court or on appeal: whether defendant had been seized at all. In an unpublished per curiam opinion issued December 17, 2020 (Docket No. 353646) the Court of Appeals, Letica, P.J., and Riordan and Cameron JJ., held that based on the totality of the circumstances the earliest point at which the encounter with Robinson could have become a seizure implicating the Fourth Amendment was when defendant admitted to not having a valid driver's license, because that was the earliest point at which a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave. Subsequent investigation into and arrest for suspicion of OWI was deemed justifiable because defendant had been seen driving and the deputy had observed signs of possible intoxication. The Court held that even if MCL 257.676b(1) required actual impediment of traffic, under People v Salters, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued January 26, 2001 (Docket No. 215396), the evidence should not have been suppressed because a traffic stop would have been based on Robinson's reasonable mistake of law. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held that the district court abused its discretion when it held that the Fourth Amendment was violated and thus that the district court erred by excluding evidence from the seizure and by dismissing the OWI charge. Defendant sought leave to appeal in the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court granted the application, limited to three issues: (1) whether Robinson seized defendant when Robinson pulled his patrol vehicle behind defendant's vehicle in the driveway; (2) whether defendant impeded traffic in violation of MCL 257.676b(1) when there was no actual traffic to impede at that time; and (3) if not, whether Robinson made a reasonable mistake of law by effectuating a traffic stop of defendant for violating MCL 257.676b(1). 508 Mich. 947 (2021).

In an opinion by Justice Welch, joined by Chief Justice McCormack and Justices Bernstein, Clement (as to Parts I, II(A), and II(B)), and Cavanagh, the Supreme Court held:

Defendant was seized under the Fourth Amendment when a police officer blocked the driveway and defendant's path of egress with a marked patrol car because, under the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave or to terminate the interaction; the impeding-traffic statute, MCL 257.676b(1), is only violated if the normal flow of traffic has actually been disrupted; and no reasonable mistake of law occurred because the police officer's mistaken reading of MCL 257.676b(1), an unambiguous statute, was not objectively reasonable.

1. The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects individuals from being subjected to unreasonable searches and seizures. A person has been seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that they were not free to leave. While police officers generally need a warrant to search or seize someone, there are recognized exceptions to this general rule, such as an investigatory stop. A brief seizure for investigative purposes does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the officer has a reasonably articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. In this case, Robinson did not initiate a formal traffic stop for a violation of MCL 257.676b(1), despite his testimony that this was his intention when he began following defendant. Robinson pulled onto the driveway behind defendant, parked a few feet behind defendant, and blocked the exit. Robinson did not turn his emergency lights on, sound his siren, or direct defendant to pull over on the side of the road. What was not clear under the facts of this case was whether defendant had an independent desire to keep moving. The driveway and home belonged to his friend. The record was silent on whether defendant was planning to visit with his friend before Robinson began following defendant or whether defendant was planning to keep driving. However, under either of these hypothetical scenarios, defendant was seized. Defendant was seized at the moment Robinson, in his marked police vehicle, blocked defendant's car, resulting in no means for defendant to exit the single-lane driveway. Using a marked police vehicle to block a civilian vehicle's ability to exit a single-lane driveway to facilitate questioning or an investigation is a show of force on behalf of the police that can give rise to a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Under the circumstances of this case-including the rural setting, the way the encounter was initiated by the officer swiftly following defendant down a private driveway, and the fact that the officer's police vehicle blocked defendant's car in the driveway-a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave the scene, even though the police officer did not activate emergency lights or a siren. The same facts would cause a reasonable person to feel compelled to answer questions posed by the officer who had followed him and blocked his path of egress from the driveway of a home he did not own. If a reasonable person in defendant's place did not have an independent desire to leave, but nevertheless did not want to interact with Robinson, the other options available to them would have been to attempt to enter a home that they did not own (and without knowledge whether the owner was home) or wander off into a frozen field some distance from town in a rural area. Neither would have been a viable option from the perspective of a reasonable person after having been followed and then blocked in by a police officer. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals erred by holding that defendant was not seized until after he had made incriminating statements about not having a valid driver's license.

2. MCL 257.676b(1) provides, in relevant part, that a person without authority, shall not block, obstruct, impede, or otherwise interfere with the normal flow of vehicular, streetcar, or pedestrian traffic upon a public street or highway in this state by means of a barricade, object, or device or with his or her person. The parties did not dispute that defendant could be a "person" and his vehicle an "object" under MCL 257.676b(1); therefore, it was assumed without deciding that MCL 257.676b(1) applies to a person operating a vehicle on a roadway. The clear terms of MCL 257.676b(1) require some...

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