State v. Lawrence, No. 02-181

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont
Citation834 A.2d 10
Docket Number No. 02-182., No. 02-181
PartiesSTATE of Vermont v. Leland LAWRENCE.
Decision Date18 July 2003



¶ 1. Defendant Leland Lawrence appeals from orders of the Orleans District Court denying his motion to suppress evidence secured pertinent to his arrest for driving while under the influence of intoxicants, in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201, by a Vermont state police officer at the United States Port of Entry in Derby Line, Vermont, and denying his motions to dismiss the resultant criminal prosecution and companion civil suspension proceeding. On appeal, defendant argues that the trial court erroneously concluded that defendant's detention in the customs building at the border crossing prior to the arrival of the arresting officer was objectively reasonable. Defendant also claims the trial court erred in failing to find that defendant was unlawfully arrested by a United States customs inspector for violating 23 V.S.A. § 1201. We affirm.

¶ 2. On September 19, 2001, defendant and three adult male companions attempted to reenter the United States from Canada at the Derby Line Port of Entry. United States customs inspector A. Michael Richard was on duty at the primary inspection lane arriving from Canada when, at approximately 8:14 p.m., a vehicle driven by defendant entered the lane and was stopped for inspection. Inspector Richard posed customary screening questions to defendant and his companions regarding their citizenship and the purpose of their trip. Defendant informed the inspector that the group was returning from an adult entertainment club where they had consumed alcohol. In the inspector's opinion, the answers provided by defendant and his passengers were given in a manner that was out of the ordinary for the current situation; that is, in the heightened security at the border eight days after the September 11 attacks on the United States. Inspector Richard then asked to examine the four men's driver's licenses and to inspect the vehicle. Inspector Richard kept the men's licenses in his possession throughout the rest of the inspection process.

¶ 3. Inspector Richard then inspected the interior of the vehicle. Upon opening the back area of the vehicle, Inspector Richard smelled alcohol. He found, among other things, empty beer cans and an ice chest containing a partially empty, half-gallon bottle of vodka. After completing his search of the vehicle, inspector Richard asked defendant to pull his vehicle out of the primary inspection lane, park, and then enter the customs building for a secondary inspection. As defendant drove to the secondary inspection station, inspector Richard called the Vermont state police and notified them that he believed defendant "had consumed too much alcohol."

¶ 4. After entering the customs building, inspector Richard asked defendant and his companions to complete baggage declarations. Unable to immediately complete the secondary inspection, inspector Richard left defendant and the others in the customs building and returned to his post in the primary inspection lane to continue his inspections of other vehicles entering the country. According to inspector Richard, it was not unusual for people to have to wait "for whatever time period is necessary in order to complete the inspection." Inspector Richard then alternated between conducting primary inspections and finishing defendant's secondary inspection. When traffic subsided in the primary lane, Richard would "try to continue the processing [of defendant] by reviewing baggage declarations, [and] by inspecting the car."

¶ 5. At 9:23 p.m., Vermont state police Corporal Albert Stringer arrived at the border crossing. Inspector Richard relayed his observations to Corporal Stringer and showed the officer defendant's vehicle, the empty beverage containers, and the contents of the cooler. Inspector Richard then brought Corporal Stringer to the customs building, where Stringer confronted defendant. Corporal Stringer observed that defendant was unsteady on his feet, that his eyes were bloodshot and watery, and that a strong odor of intoxicants emanated from his person. Defendant admitted to Corporal Stringer that he had consumed four to five drinks prior to 8:00 p.m. Accordingly, Corporal Stringer administered three field sobriety tests, which provided further indicia of intoxication. Stringer also administered a non-evidentiary breath test, which indicated that defendant was impaired.

¶ 6. Defendant was then taken into custody by Corporal Stringer and transported to the state police barracks for processing, where he was advised of his Miranda rights. Defendant invoked his rights, and no further interrogation occurred. Defendant was then advised of his rights under the state's implied consent law, 23 V.S.A. § 1202. After acknowledging these rights and consulting with an attorney, defendant provided a breath sample for evidentiary testing. The results of this test indicated a blood alcohol content of 0.114%.

¶ 7. Defendant was charged with a violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201(a)(2) for operating a motor vehicle on a public highway while under the influence of intoxicants and was issued a notice of driver's license suspension pursuant to the civil suspension statutory procedure. See 23 V.S.A. § 1205. A civil suspension hearing was held, at which defendant moved to dismiss the civil suspension case, averring that he was unlawfully seized and detained by inspector Richard, and that evidence resulting from that seizure must be excluded. Subsequently, defendant filed a motion to suppress all evidence emanating from his detention and arrest in the criminal case and renewed his motion to dismiss in the civil suspension case. The trial court denied defendant's motions. Relying primarily on this Court's decision in State v. Garbutt, 173 Vt. 277, 790 A.2d 444 (2001), the trial court found that the "period and circumstances of the detention in secondary inspection... were not objectively unreasonable, in consideration of the totality of the circumstances," and that Corporal Stringer had "reasonable grounds to believe that the Defendant had been operating a motor vehicle in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 1201." Judgment for the State was entered in the civil suspension proceeding. Defendant subsequently pled nolo contendere by waiver to the criminal charge against him. This appeal followed.

¶ 8. We have routinely observed that this Court reviews motions to suppress de novo. State v. Chapman, 173 Vt. 400, 402, 800 A.2d 446, 448 (2002); State v. Pierce, 173 Vt. 151, 152, 787 A.2d 1284, 1286 (2001) (reviewing denial of motion to suppress evidence obtained in connection with defendant's traffic stop de novo); State v. Graves, 170 Vt. 646, 646, 757 A.2d 462, 463 (2000) (mem.) (reviewing denial of motion to suppress results of breath test taken at port of entry de novo). However, we have applied a more deferential standard to the trial court's determination of underlying facts when ruling on a motion to suppress. See State v. Sheehan, 171 Vt. 642, 643, 768 A.2d 1275, 1277 (2000) (mem.) (when evaluating a motion to suppress, "[v]oluntariness is a question of fact"); State v. Badger, 141 Vt. 430, 444, 450 A.2d 336, 344 (1982) (noting that Court's job in reviewing a grant of a motion to suppress based on voluntary consent is "to determine whether the factual findings are sufficient to support the conclusion that the consent was involuntary as a matter of law"). Deferential appellate review of a trial court's factual findings on motions to suppress is appropriate because determining the weight of evidence and credibility of witnesses is primarily for the trier of fact. Peckham v. Peckham, 149 Vt. 388, 390, 543 A.2d 267, 269 (1988); Commonwealth v. Moon, 380 Mass. 751, 405 N.E.2d 947, 951 (1980); State v. Smith, 80 Ohio St.3d 89, 684 N.E.2d 668, 685 (1997). We have recently recognized that some courts consider the determination of voluntary consent in the context of a motion to suppress as a mixed question of fact and law necessitating a two-step approach: underlying findings of "historical" fact are reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard, while the court's ultimate legal conclusion is reviewed de novo. State v. Sprague, 2003 Vt. 20, ¶ 24, 175 Vt. ___, 824 A.2d 539. Similarly, other courts apply a deferential standard to underlying facts when the central legal issue present in the motion to suppress is the reasonableness of a seizure. People v. Glaser, 11 Cal.4th 354, 45 Cal.Rptr.2d 425, 902 P.2d 729, 732 (1995) (state supreme court defers to trial court's factual findings when supported by substantial evidence); People v. Reynolds, 94 Ill.2d 160, 68 Ill. Dec. 122, 445 N.E.2d 766, 769 (1983) (appellate court will not disturb trial court's findings on motion to suppress unless findings manifestly erroneous); Bies v. State, 76 Wis.2d 457, 251 N.W.2d 461, 467 (1977) (trial court's findings sustained unless against great weight and clear preponderance of evidence, but reviewing court independently determines if search reasonable); see also State v. Ehly, 317 Or. 66, 854 P.2d 421, 427 (1993) (trial court's findings of historical fact on suppression motion binding on appellate court if sufficient evidence in the record to support them). If the trial court's findings of historical fact are not clearly erroneous, the appellate court then reviews the legal issues, such as the reasonableness of a seizure, de novo.

¶ 9. Ultimately, the determination we are asked to make in this and similar appeals from grants or denials of motions to suppress is a mixed question of law and fact; that is, whether the factual findings supported by the record lead to the conclusion, that, as a matter of law, suppression of evidence was or was not necessary. And since the trial court is in the best position to determine the weight and sufficiency of evidence presented, it is appropriate for this...

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  • State v. Bryant
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • March 28, 2008
    ...this Court applies a deferential standard of review to the trial court's findings of fact. State v. Lawrence, 2003 VT 68, ¶ 8, 175 Vt. 600, 834 A.2d 10 (mem.). If the findings of fact are not clearly erroneous, we then review the legal issues de novo. Id. ¶ 8. Here, defendant does not chall......
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