State v. Day

Decision Date22 September 2008
Docket NumberNo.
Citation263 S.W.3d 891
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee v. Tyson Lee DAY.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

David Allen Doyle, District Public Defender; Mike Anderson, Assistant District Public Defender, for the appellee, Tyson Lee Day.

OPINION

CORNELIA A. CLARK, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which WILLIAM M. BARKER, C.J., and JANICE M. HOLDER and GARY R. WADE, JJ., joined. WILLIAM C. KOCH, JR., J., filed a dissenting opinion.

After unsuccessfully moving to suppress evidence resulting from the traffic stop that led to his arrest, the defendant, Tyson Lee Day, pleaded guilty to third offense driving under the influence and driving on a revoked license. The plea agreement provided for reservation of a certified question of law regarding whether the traffic stop was based on reasonable suspicion, supported by specific and articulable facts, that a criminal offense had been or was about to be committed. On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that at the time the officer initiated the traffic stop, he lacked reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, the court reversed the judgment of the trial court and, because the question was dispositive, dismissed the case. We granted the State's application for permission to appeal to consider the question of whether the community caretaking rationale for traffic stops justified the stop in this case. After carefully examining the certified question, however, we conclude that the community caretaking issue was not included within the scope of the question reserved for review. Accordingly, our review extends solely to the issue preserved, i.e., whether the traffic stop was based on reasonable suspicion, supported by specific and articulable facts, that a criminal offense had been or was about to be committed. We conclude that the facts do not support a finding of reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Factual and Procedural Background

On May 16, 2004, Hendersonville Police Officer Jeff Tarkington was headed northbound on routine patrol along New Shackle Island Road when he noticed a southbound vehicle flashing its lights. The vehicle's driver, later determined to be Ms. Ferrell, waved her arms at Officer Tarkington and pointed at the white sport utility vehicle (SUV) in front of her. Officer Tarkington made a U-turn and pulled between the two vehicles. He activated his blue lights and initiated a traffic stop of the SUV. Ms. Ferrell also pulled over to the side of the road behind Officer Tarkington's patrol car. Officer Tarkington admitted that at the time he stopped the SUV he had not seen the defendant engaged in "any bad driving or anything of that nature." After first speaking with Ms. Ferrell, Officer Tarkington approached the SUV, which was driven by the defendant.2 As he spoke to the defendant, Officer Tarkington detected the smell of alcohol. After the defendant failed several field sobriety tests, Officer Tarkington arrested him. A blood sample taken from the defendant indicated a blood-alcohol content of .25 percent.

Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress any evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop. He alleged that the stop was in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution, because it was not based on reasonable suspicion, supported by specific and articulable facts, that a criminal offense had been, or was about to be, committed. He argued that, under the facts of this case, hand signals by another driver, unaccompanied by an explanation, do not rise to the level of reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify an investigatory stop.

In response, the State argued that "reasonable suspicion" is an imprecise term that should be interpreted in a common-sense, non-technical manner, considering the totality of the circumstances. The State contended that a police officer should not have to articulate a precise crime that is suspected, only that there are facts and circumstances indicative that a crime of some sort either has been committed or is in progress. The requirement of reasonable suspicion is intended to curtail arbitrary police action. Accordingly, where a citizen informant in an automobile flashes her headlights at the officer and makes hand signals that can be reasonably interpreted as indicating a problem, that is sufficient to support a finding of reasonable suspicion.3 Alternatively, the State argued as a matter of policy that under these facts police officers should be permitted to make brief traffic stops to investigate the circumstances as part of their community caretaking function. The flashing lights and hand signals could be indicative of distress, an emergency, or a crime. Given the mobile nature of automobiles, there is a certain inherent exigency when one motorist gives to a police officer signals calling attention to another motorist. Accordingly, the State argued that the stop in this case was justified as part of the police officer's community care-taking role. Indeed, the State argued, Officer Tarkington would have been derelict in his duty if he had failed to stop the defendant.

Although acknowledging that it was a close issue, the trial court agreed with the State. The court implicitly relied upon the community caretaking function of law enforcement in denying the motion to suppress:

If an officer sees somebody flicking their lights, trying to get his attention, and then pointing, it seems to me that it is certainly reasonable within the circumstances to pull the car over and at least do an investigatory stop. I mean, there could have been a medical issue. It could have been—the car might have been fleeing from some kind of an accident. You're right, we don't know, but I think it warrants an investigatory stop.

Would I have preferred that he witness some erratic driving himself? Yes. But on the other hand, I think that the officer, you know, he's got to consider public safety. He was alerted to the fact that obviously something was the matter. And so I feel that it was reasonable under the totality of the circumstances to stop the car.

Based on the trial court's ruling, the defendant and the State negotiated a plea agreement under which the defendant pleaded guilty to third-offense DUI and driving on a revoked license in return for sentences of eleven (11) months, twenty-nine (29) days, and six (6) months, respectively, to be served concurrently and suspended after service of one hundred twenty (120) days in jail. Part of the plea agreement was that the defendant would be permitted to certify and appeal the question of law challenging the validity of the traffic stop pursuant to Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure 37(b)(2)(A). The question certified for review reads as follows:

that the stop of the Defendant's vehicle and seizure of the Defendant's person (by which law enforcement obtained evidence that the Defendant motioned to be suppressed) was not based upon reasonable suspicion, supported by specific and articulable facts, that a criminal offense had been or was about to be committed. . . .

The question, as stated, did not specifically include an inquiry as to whether the stop was justified under the community caretaking function.

On appeal, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the judgment of the trial court and dismissed the indictments. The court concluded that the act of an unknown driver signaling a law enforcement officer and pointing to another vehicle, without more, was insufficient to support a finding of reasonable suspicion that a crime had been or was being committed. The court did not expressly discuss whether a community caretaking exception would apply to justify the traffic stop in this case.4

The State applied to this Court for permission to appeal, specifically raising the issue of whether a community caretaking exception to the reasonable suspicion requirement exists in Tennessee. The State pointed out that the Court of Criminal Appeals opinion in Jenkins, 2003 WL 21523247, seemingly reaches a contrary result to that reached by the intermediate appellate court in this case.5

The State also argued that the Court of Criminal Appeals had applied the wrong standard in analyzing the nature of Ms Ferrell's complaint as lacking any indicia of credibility or basis of knowledge or even as making a specific complaint. The State contends that this informant was a citizen informant whose communication was, in the first instance, presumed reliable. Furthermore, although the informant's communication to the officer was articulated by hand signals rather than verbally, the State contends that such communication was sufficient to convey her concern that law enforcement intervention was needed. We granted the State's Application for Permission to Appeal.

Scope of the Certified Question

The State argues in this Court that under the community caretaking function of law enforcement, upon observing the flashing lights and hand signals from Ms. Ferrell, Officer Tarkington was not only justified, but obligated, to make the traffic stop to assess the situation. We note, however, that this issue was neither raised in, nor addressed by, the Court of Criminal Appeals. Accordingly, our preliminary concern is whether this issue relating to the community caretaking function is encompassed within the scope of the question certified for appeal. The agreed order referenced by the judgment document in this case states the certified issue as:

that the stop...

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