State v. Harrison

Decision Date02 May 2014
Docket NumberNo. 12–0139.,12–0139.
Citation846 N.W.2d 362
PartiesSTATE of Iowa, Appellee, v. Craig E. HARRISON, Appellant.
CourtIowa Supreme Court


Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Theresa R. Wilson, Assistant State Appellate Defender, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Kyle P. Hanson, Assistant Attorney General, Michael J. Walton, County Attorney, and Kelly G. Cunningham, Assistant County Attorney, for appellee.

WATERMAN, Justice.

Are police officers permitted to stop a motorist because his license plate frame covers up the county name? Two district court judges in this case issued conflicting rulings on that question, although both denied defendant's motion to suppress evidence of the crack cocaine found in his possession after the traffic stop at issue. Police officers gave two reasons for stopping defendant's Jeep—their belief his license plate was in violation of Iowa Code section 321.37(3) (2009) and their suspicion he was drug dealing based on an informant's tip and his evasive behavior. Defendant was charged with possession with intent to deliver crack cocaine, a drug tax stamp violation, and driving under suspension, but not for a license plate violation.

A district court judge, who presided at the suppression hearing, initially ruled the license plate frame gave no reason to stop defendant because the large plate numbers and letters were visible, but upheld the traffic stop based on a reasonable suspicion of drug dealing. A different judge who presided at trial upheld the stop based on the license plate violation alone and excluded evidence of the informant and suspicious behavior preceding the traffic stop. The jury found defendant guilty as charged. He appealed, and we transferred his appeal to the court of appeals, which held the traffic stop was lawful based on reasonable suspicion of drug dealing without deciding the license plate issue. That court also affirmed the district court's rejection of defendant's claim the State breached a plea agreement. We granted defendant's application for further review to decide whether a license plate violation justified this traffic stop.

For the reasons explained below, we hold a license plate frame that covers up the county name violates Iowa Code section 321.37(3) and provides a valid basis for a traffic stop. We decline to reach the issue of whether the traffic stop was otherwise lawful based on reasonable suspicion of drug dealing and, therefore, vacate the court of appeals decision on that issue. We affirm the court of appeals decision on the plea agreement issue and affirm the district court judgment and sentence.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

The evening of July 7, 2009, Davenport police officers Craig Burkle and Jason Ellerbach were on patrol in an unmarked Crown Victoria when they received a phone call from a confidential informant. The informant gave the officers an address and told them they would find “a black male ... slinging dope” in a red Jeep Cherokee with Iowa license plate No. 994 RDB. The officers drove to the address, found the Jeep parked there unoccupied, and waited nearby for the driver to return. A few minutes later, a black male got into the Jeep and drove away. The officers followed the Jeep for approximately five blocks, until the driver pulled over to the side of the road. The officers drove past without seeing the driver get out of his vehicle. The officers believed the driver had pulled over to avoid their tail and to “prevent[ ] himself from making any traffic violation mistakes” that would allow them to “initiate a traffic stop.” The officers circled the block. When they returned to where the driver had stopped, the Jeep was gone.

Minutes later, the officers located the Jeep a few blocks away. The officers followed the driver back to the address given by the informant, where he parked. The officers believed the driver “possibly was doing drops, dropping off narcotics to other residences.” Shortly thereafter, the driver left again in the Jeep. The officers followed for three miles and then initiated a traffic stop because the Jeep's license plate frame covered up the county name on the license plate, which the officers believed violated Iowa Code section 321.37(3). During the stop, the officers identified the driver as Craig Harrison and placed him in the back of their vehicle. They soon discovered he possessed eighteen prepackaged crack cocaine rocks.

On August 11, the State charged Harrison with (1) possession with intent to deliver a schedule II controlled substance, in violation of Iowa Code sections 124.206(2)( d ), 124.401(1)( c )(3), and 703.1; (2) failure to affix a drug tax stamp, in violation of Iowa Code sections 453B.1(3)( d ), 453B.3, 453B.7(4), 453B.12, and 703.1; and (3) driving while suspended, in violation of Iowa Code sections 321.210A and 321.218. He was not charged with a license plate violation under Iowa Code section 321.37(3). On January 6, 2010, Harrison submitted a guilty plea pursuant to a plea agreement with the State. The State later withdrew from the plea agreement after Harrison's criminal record was discovered to be more extensive than it had originally appeared. Harrison withdrew his guilty plea and proceeded to trial.

On June 7, Harrison filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during the traffic stop. A hearing on the motion was held June 9. Officer Ellerbach and Officer Burkle testified regarding the events leading up to the traffic stop. Officer Ellerbach acknowledged the county name on a license plate is unnecessary for law enforcement to conduct a license plate check.

On June 14, the district court issued its ruling on Harrison's motion to suppress. The court first concluded Iowa Code section 321.37(3) “refers to the large letters and large numbers on the Iowa license plate, not the small letters at the bottom of the plate designating the county.” The court noted Harrison was not charged with a license plate violation. The court thus concluded “the alleged license plate violation” was “pretextual” and “an invalid ground for initiating the stop of the vehicle and search of Harrison.” 1 The district court ruled, however, the stop was justified by “sufficient objective facts to support an investigatory stop of the vehicle and driver for suspicion of possessing and selling illegal controlled substances.” The district court specifically noted “the tip from an informant, fully corroborated by the officers' observation, ... the driver's activity, and driver's attempt to evade being followed.”The district court denied Harrison's motion to suppress.

The jury trial began September 19, 2011. A different judge presided over the trial, and this judge disagreed with the prior ruling on the license plate issue. The trial judge gave this explanation for upholding the traffic stop based on the license plate violation:

[I] looked at this file and my concern is that the motion to suppress was granted on one ground, and the Court at that time found that the other ground was pretextual for the traffic stop. I disagree with that. The traffic stop was done by the policemen because they could not see the entire writing on the license plate, and I looked at the statute and I'm having trial this morning, so I would find that the traffic stop was a valid traffic stop because the section 321.166(2) requires a license plate to have a county designation on it. The other statute, 321.37, states that a registration plate or a license plate has to permit full view of all numerals and letters printed on the registration plate. So I believe it was a valid traffic stop, which means that the confidential informant does not have to be mentioned whatsoever.

The trial court thus excluded any mention of the confidential informant or Harrison's behavior before the traffic stop. The jury ultimately found Harrison guilty on all counts.

Harrison appealed, and we transferred the case to the court of appeals. Harrison argued the district court erroneously denied his motion to suppress because neither the alleged license plate violation nor the surrounding circumstances created reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop. He also challenged the district court's ruling that allowed the State to withdraw from the plea agreement.

The court of appeals concluded the informant's tip and Harrison's driving gave the officers reasonable suspicion to stop him. The court of appeals did not consider whether the alleged violation of Iowa Code section 321.37(3) provided an independent basis for the stop. The court of appeals also rejected Harrison's argument that the district court should have enforced the plea agreement. We granted Harrison's application for further review.

II. Scope of Review.

“On further review, we have the discretion to review all or some of the issues raised on appeal....” State v. Clay, 824 N.W.2d 488, 494 (Iowa 2012). In this appeal, we exercise that discretion and confine our review to whether the officers validly stopped Harrison for violating Iowa Code section 321.37(3). We decline to review the court of appeals decision affirming the district court ruling that allowed the State to withdraw from the plea agreement. “Therefore, the court of appeals decision on that issue stands.” Schaefer v. Putnam, 841 N.W.2d 68, 74 (Iowa 2013).

The validity of the traffic stop based on the frame covering up the county name on the license plate presents a question of statutory interpretation that we review for correction of errors at law. See State v. Romer, 832 N.W.2d 169, 174 (Iowa 2013).

III. Analysis.

“When a peace officer observes a traffic offense, however minor, the officer has probable cause to stop the driver of the vehicle.” State v. Mitchell, 498 N.W.2d 691, 693 (Iowa 1993). A traffic violation therefore also establishes reasonable suspicion. See Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325, 330, 110 S.Ct. 2412, 2416, 110 L.Ed.2d 301, 309 (1990) (“Reasonable suspicion is a less demanding standard than ...

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