State v. Lussier

Decision Date28 April 2000
Docket Number No. 98-394, No. 99-017.
Citation757 A.2d 1017
CourtVermont Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of Vermont v. Steven R. LUSSIER, Jr. State of Vermont v. Robert R. Lussier.

Dale O. Gray, Caledonia County State's Attorney, and Alan M. Singer and Robert Butterfield, Deputy State's Attorneys, St. Johnsbury, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

David C. Sleigh of Sleigh & Williams, St. Johnsbury, for Defendants-Appellants.

Present: AMESTOY, C.J., DOOLEY, MORSE, JOHNSON and SKOGLUND, JJ.

Motion for Reargument in No. 99-017 Denied June 12, 2000.

JOHNSON, J.

Defendants in these two consolidated cases appeal the civil suspension of their driver's licenses. At issue is whether the district court in a civil suspension proceeding may consider the constitutionality of the underlying stop, and, if so, whether the stops in these two cases were lawful. We hold that a defendant in a civil suspension proceeding may challenge the reasonableness of the underlying stop pursuant to 23 V.S.A. § 1205(h)(1), which permits the court to consider whether the police officer had reasonable grounds to believe that the defendant was driving while intoxicated. This interpretation of § 1205(h)(1) is consistent with our belief that the exclusionary rule's ban against the admission of unlawfully obtained evidence should extend to civil suspension proceedings to protect the core value of privacy embraced by Chapter I, Article 11 of the Vermont Constitution. Examining the stops in the two cases before us, we conclude that defendant Steven Lussier was lawfully stopped for operating a motor vehicle with only one functioning taillight, but that defendant Robert Lussier was unlawfully stopped for operating a vehicle with only one functioning rear license plate light.

There is no dispute as to the facts in either case. Defendant Steven Lussier was stopped at 2:49 in the morning on June 28, 1998 by a police officer who observed that his passenger car's right taillight was inoperable. Upon stopping the vehicle, the officer noticed signs of intoxication and ultimately processed defendant for driving while intoxicated (DWI) after he failed to satisfactorily perform field dexterity tests. Defendant agreed to a breath test, which revealed a blood-alcohol concentration of .152.

At his civil suspension hearing, defendant argued that because Vermont statutory law requires only one functional taillight on passenger cars, the officer had no reasonable basis for stopping him. The district court rejected this argument, concluding that Vermont law requires that each and every taillight on a motor vehicle be in good operating condition. On appeal, defendant renews his argument that there was no reasonable basis for the stop of his vehicle because Vermont law requires only one functioning taillight.

In the second case, defendant Robert Lussier was stopped at 1:18 in the morning on November 29, 1998 by a police officer who observed that one of the two white lights intended to illuminate his truck's rear license plate was inoperable. Upon stopping the vehicle, the officer noticed signs of intoxication and ultimately processed defendant for DWI after he was unable to perform field dexterity tests. Defendant agreed to a breath test, which revealed a blood-alcohol concentration of.140.

At the civil suspension hearing, defendant argued that because Vermont statutory law requires only one light to illuminate the rear license plate, the officer had no reasonable and articulable basis for stopping his truck. The district court concluded that the stop was justified by the inoperable plate light, and that in any event the issue concerning the validity of the stop was not one of the limited issues enumerated in § 1205(h) that may be raised in civil suspension proceedings. On appeal, defendant contends that there was no reasonable basis for stopping his truck because Vermont law does not require two functioning rear license plate lights, and his plate was adequately illuminated.

The parties in both cases requested and received permission to incorporate into their appeals the briefs in two other appeals pending before this Court, State v. Nickerson, 98-530 and State v. Rash, 98-531. The principal issue raised in those appeals is whether the exclusionary rule's ban against the admission of unlawfully obtained evidence should be applied in civil suspension hearings.

I.

Before considering whether the stops in the instant cases were lawful, we must consider whether a defendant in a civil suspension hearing may challenge the reasonableness of the underlying stop.

A.

Under 23 V.S.A. § 1205(h)(1)-(5), the issues at a final civil suspension hearing are limited to the following:

(1) whether the law enforcement officer had reasonable grounds to believe the person was operating, attempting to operate or in actual physical control of a vehicle in violation of section 1201 of this title;
(2) whether at the time of the request for the evidentiary test the officer informed the person of the person's rights and the consequences of taking and refusing the test ...;
(3) whether the person refused to permit the test;
(4) whether the test was taken and the test results indicated that the person's alcohol concentration was 0.08 or more at the time of operati[on] ..., whether the testing methods used were valid and reliable and whether the test results were accurate and accurately evaluated ...;
(5) whether the requirements of section 1202 of this title [consent to taking of tests to determine blood alcohol content] were complied with.

According to the State, because the limited issues enumerated in § 1205(h) do not explicitly include whether reasonable grounds existed for the stop, the Legislature must not have intended to allow defendants in civil suspension proceedings to challenge the constitutionality of stops. See State v. Pollander, 167 Vt. 301, 308, 706 A.2d 1359, 1363 (1997) (Legislature intended to limit issues that may be presented in civil suspension hearings to those enumerated in statute). In the State's view, the reasonableness of the officer's belief that the defendant was driving while intoxicated, see § 1205(h)(1), may be satisfied solely on evidence of intoxication gathered after the stop—odor of alcohol, watery eyes, slurred speech, failure to perform dexterity tests, etc.—regardless of the lawfulness of the stop itself.

We are not persuaded by the State's argument. Our primary duty in construing a statute is to discern the intent of the Legislature by examining the language of the entire statute, along with its purpose, effects, and consequences. See Candido v. Polymers, Inc., 166 Vt. 15, 17, 687 A.2d 476, 478 (1996); State v. O'Neill, 165 Vt. 270, 275, 682 A.2d 943, 946 (1996). While the Legislature plainly intended to expedite the adjudication of civil license suspensions, see State v. Strong, 158 Vt. 56, 61, 605 A.2d 510, 513 (1992), it was careful to ensure that all of the rights related to the taking of a blood or breath sample applied equally in both criminal and civil DUI proceedings. We find it unlikely that the Legislature intended to retain these statutorily created rights in civil suspension proceedings while stripping defendants in those proceedings of their constitutionally protected right to be free from unreasonable stops. Rather, we conclude that, in permitting defendants in a civil suspension proceeding to dispute whether the processing officer had reasonable grounds to believe that the motorist was driving while intoxicated, the Legislature assumed that a constitutional stop would be a necessary predicate to finding "reasonable grounds" for suspicion of DUI. Nothing in the language of § 1205 or the purpose behind the statute suggests that the Legislature intended otherwise.

Section 1205(h)(1) permits defendants in civil suspension proceedings to challenge whether the arresting officer had reasonable grounds to suspect a DWI violation. When a motor vehicle stop is based on an officer's suspicion that the driver was intoxicated, the issue of whether the officer had reasonable grounds to suspect a DWI violation is logically extended to the question of whether there was a reasonable basis for the stop. It would make little sense, however, to allow defendants to challenge the legality of the underlying stop only in situations when the officer indicated that the stop was based on a suspicion that there had been a DWI violation. In determining the legality of a stop, courts do not attempt to divine the arresting officer's actual subjective motivation for making the stop; rather, they consider from an objective standpoint whether, given all of the circumstances, the officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion of wrongdoing. See State v. Sutphin, 159 Vt. 9, 11, 614 A.2d 792, 793 (1992). It is conceivable that officers might stop individuals for minor vehicle violations based on a suspicion of DUI, perhaps because the individuals have a prior history of DUI in the community or because of other circumstances, such as the time of night or the location of the vehicle.1 The point is that the subjective motivation of the officer is not the basis for determining the legality of a stop, and thus the issue of whether a stop was legal should not be excluded from determining whether the officer had reasonable grounds to suspect a DUI violation, simply because the stop was ostensibly made on grounds other that DUI.

Hence, a rational interpretation of § 1205(h)(1) would permit defendants to challenge the reasonableness of the officer's belief based on the fact that it was derived from an unlawful stop. The State seeks a more narrow interpretation, however, which would permit law enforcement officers to make random stops of vehicles for any or no reason at all in the hopes of detecting drunk drivers. Indeed, under the State's interpretation of the statute, roadblocks could be set up without regard to the carefully considered...

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