State v. Lopez

Decision Date25 April 1994
Docket NumberNo. 920319,920319
Citation873 P.2d 1127
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Plaintiff, Petitioner, and Cross-Respondent, v. Gerard Cotero J. LOPEZ, Defendant, Respondent, and Cross-Petitioner.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

R. Paul Van Dam, Atty. Gen., J. Kevin Murphy, David B. Thompson, Asst. Attys. Gen., Salt Lake City, for plaintiff.

James A. Valdez, Joan C. Watt, Elizabeth Holbrook, Salt Lake City, for defendant.

HOWE, Justice:

The trial court granted defendant's motion to suppress the cocaine that police officers found in his vehicle during an inventory search. The State filed a petition for interlocutory review with the court of appeals, which granted the petition and reversed the suppression order. The court of appeals held that the trial court had misapplied the pretext stop doctrine and had failed to enter adequate findings of fact on reasonable suspicion. State v. Lopez, 831 P.2d 1040 (Utah Ct.App.1992). The court refused the State's invitation to abandon the pretext stop doctrine. We granted both the State's petition and defendant's cross-petition for a writ of certiorari.


Because the trial court's written findings do not describe the circumstances giving rise to this case, we look to the record of the suppression hearing for the relevant facts. At about 9 p.m. on June 19, 1990, Officer Hamner saw defendant driving south on 400 East Street in Salt Lake City. He recognized defendant's car as one he had seen on several occasions near two local bars where illegal drug use was known to occur. Hamner testified that he recognized defendant as Jose Cruz, a known drug dealer, from his undercover work on the Metro Narcotics Strike Force nine months earlier. During that time, defendant had been "pointed out" to him as Cruz. Hamner had on one occasion personally met the individual he believed to be Cruz. He had also seen photographs of Cruz during his work on the strike force.

Knowing that nine months earlier Cruz had not possessed a valid driver's license, Hamner decided to run a license check on him. The check yielded, "[N]o record of [Cruz] having a driver's license." Relying on this information, he drove from the alley in which he was parked and began to follow Defendant was unable to produce a driver's license, but he did give Hamner an identification card with the name Geraldo Lopez on it. A license and warrants check on Geraldo Lopez showed no license and three outstanding warrants. Hamner arrested defendant on the warrants and cited him for driving without a license and for failing to signal before turning. Later, officers conducted an inventory search of defendant's car and discovered several bags of cocaine. The State charged him with unlawful possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, a second degree felony under Utah Code Ann. § 58-37-8(1)(a)(iv).

defendant. Defendant turned left onto 700 South Street and, according to Hamner's testimony, made the turn without signaling. Hamner then activated his overhead lights and stopped defendant. At the suppression hearing, he testified that he suspected defendant of illegal drug activity but that he made the stop because defendant was driving without a license and had failed to signal before turning.

Defendant moved to suppress the cocaine on the grounds that "there was no reasonable suspicion ... to believe that [he] had committed or was committing a public offense" and that "the stop was a pretext stop to conduct a fishing expedition type search." The trial court granted defendant's motion, concluding that the stop was a "pretext stop" and therefore the "subsequent search of the car and seizure of the contraband ... violated Mr. Lopez's state and federal constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures."

The court of appeals granted the State's petition for interlocutory review and, despite the State's invitation to do otherwise, retained the pretext stop doctrine. In a lengthy dissenting opinion, Judge Russon accepted the State's invitation to "reconsider the pretext analysis." Lopez, 831 P.2d at 1050-56. He rejected the pretext stop doctrine and recommended "a return to the basic analysis of the legality of seizures established in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968), and Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979)." 831 P.2d at 1051.

The Lopez majority reversed the suppression order because the trial court had "erred in focusing exclusively on Officer Hamner's subjective state of mind" in determining whether this was a pretext stop. Lopez, 831 P.2d at 1047. It also remanded the case for further factual findings with regard to the pretext stop and reasonable suspicion. We granted the State's petition and defendant's cross-petition for a writ of certiorari.


As cross-petitioner, defendant seeks to avoid remand, arguing that the trial court's factual findings are adequate. Because search and seizure issues are highly fact sensitive, "detailed findings of fact are necessary to enable this court to meaningfully review the issues on appeal." State v. Lovegren, 798 P.2d 767, 770 (Utah Ct.App.1990). Nevertheless, when a trial court has failed to make findings of fact on the record, we will "assume that the [trial court found facts] in accord with its decision" whenever it would be "reasonable to assume that the court actually made such findings." State v. Ramirez, 817 P.2d 774, 787-88 & n. 6 (Utah 1991).

Officer Hamner testified that while he was working as an undercover narcotics officer, defendant was "pointed out" to him as Jose Cruz, a known drug dealer. He also testified that he had personally met the individual he believed to be Cruz and had seen strike force photographs of him. A computer check on Cruz showed no driver's license. The trial court did not explicitly find whether these facts gave Hamner reasonable suspicion that defendant was driving without a license. Nevertheless, we agree with defendant's contention that the court of appeals erred in remanding the case for findings on this question.

A distinct finding that there was no reasonable suspicion to stop defendant for driving without a license would only make explicit what was already implicit in other findings. Sorenson v. Beers, 614 P.2d 159, 160 (Utah 1980). While the trial court determined that defendant was in fact "pointed out to Officer Finally, noting that the court "referred to [the] turn of his car as a fact and to his alleged failure to signal as a contention of the officer," defendant argues that it is reasonable for us to assume the court found that he did not turn left onto 700 South Street without signaling. The court did not make a specific finding on whether defendant made an illegal left turn. It simply found that "[O]fficer Hamner observed defendant make a left turn and says he did not see a signal at which time a stop was made" (emphasis added). A finding that defendant did not make an illegal turn is consistent with the court's decision that the detention was a pretext stop. As the court of appeals explained, the pretext doctrine has been applied "where the facts demonstrated the driver did not commit a traffic violation." State v. Lopez, 831 P.2d 1040, 1044 (Utah Ct.App.1992). However, a finding that a traffic violation did occur is also consistent with the court's decision, since the pretext doctrine has been applied where "the driver committed a minor traffic violation ... but where the court concludes that a reasonable officer would not have stopped the vehicle." Id.

                Hamner by someone else on a previous occasion ... as Jose Cruz," it also found that Cruz was the "wrong name" for defendant and that Hamner had "relied on erroneous information and stopped who he thought was Jose Cruz in order to search for drugs."   The court further found that "there was no testimony that Mr. Lopez had ever represented himself to Officer Hamner as being named or going by the name of Jose Cruz."   In short, the court determined that "all conclusions as to the identity of Mr. Lopez as Jose Cruz were erroneous."   Also, at the close of the suppression hearing, the trial judge stated that "the officer only met [defendant] on one occasion so he would not be someone that would be very familiar to the officer."   He also said that in running the initial license check, Hamner "could have applied a mistaken name."   Finally, he concluded that "the stop ... was insufficient."   Based on these oral and written findings, it is reasonable for us to conclude that the trial court found no reasonable suspicion to stop defendant for driving without a license.  This is implicit in the court's findings of fact and consistent with its suppression order

Summarizing the testimony at the suppression hearing, the trial judge specifically found, "The officer testified he wouldn't have stopped [Lopez] for the improper turn." Under the court of appeals' pretext stop doctrine, this testimony rendered the occurrence of the improper left turn immaterial because Hamner essentially conceded that a reasonable officer would not have stopped defendant for that reason alone. See State v. Sierra, 754 P.2d 972, 978 (Utah Ct.App.1988), rev'd on other grounds, State v. Arroyo, 796 P.2d 684, 689-92 (Utah 1990). The court simply did not have to decide whether defendant made an unlawful turn in Officer Hamner's presence. Because that determination is critical to our decision, we must remand the case to the trial court to resolve it, as hereinafter discussed.


The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." U.S. Const. amend. IV. The United States Supreme Court has held that "stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute[s] a seizure" within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, "even though the purpose of the...

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