State v. Moats, No. E2010–02013–SC–R11–CD.

CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee
Writing for the CourtGARY R. WADE
Citation403 S.W.3d 170
PartiesSTATE of Tennessee v. James David MOATS.
Docket NumberNo. E2010–02013–SC–R11–CD.
Decision Date22 March 2013

403 S.W.3d 170

STATE of Tennessee
v.
James David MOATS.

No. E2010–02013–SC–R11–CD.

Supreme Court of Tennessee,
at Nashville.

Oct. 5, 2012 Session Heard at Athens.1
Filed March 22, 2013.


[403 S.W.3d 174]


Robert E. Cooper, Jr., Attorney General and Reporter; William E. Young, Solicitor General; Cameron L. Hyder, Assistant Attorney General; Robert Steven Bebb, District Attorney General; and James H. Stutts, Assistant District Attorney General, for the appellant, State of Tennessee.

Matthew C. Rogers (at trial and on appeal), and Randy Rogers (at trial), Athens, Tennessee, for the appellee, James David Moats.


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

GARY R. WADE, C.J.

While on routine patrol in the early hours of the morning, a police officer observed a pick-up truck parked in a shopping center lot. Because the truck's headlights were turned on, the officer drove into the lot, stopped her patrol car directly behind the truck, and activated her blue lights. Although the officer had seen no indication of criminal activity or distress, she approached the truck, observed a beer can in a cup holder inside, and found the defendant in the driver's seat with the keys in the ignition. When she determined that the defendant had been drinking, he was arrested and later convicted for his fourth offense of driving under the influence. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, holding that the defendant was seized without either probable cause or reasonable suspicion. While we acknowledge that the activation of blue lights will not always qualify as a seizure, the totality of the circumstances in this instance establishes that the officer seized

[403 S.W.3d 175]

the defendant absent probable cause or reasonable suspicion and was not otherwise acting in a community caretaking role. The judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals is affirmed, the conviction is reversed, and the cause dismissed.

I. Facts and Procedural History
A. Suppression Hearing

At approximately 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 2008, Officer Phyllis Bige of the Etowah Police Department observed an individual, later identified as James David Moats (the “Defendant”), sitting in the driver's seat of a pick-up truck in the parking lot of a BI–LO Grocery. Citizens National Bank, located next door to the grocery, was closed at the time, but a BP gas station across the parking lot was open. “No loitering” signs had been posted at the location, and, previously, a business owner had asked the police to patrol the area more frequently after business hours because of suspected illegal drug activity. As Officer Bige drove by in her patrol car, she noticed that the headlights of the truck were turned on but the engine was not engaged. Officer Bige, who described what she had seen as “out of the ordinary,” continued on patrol; however, when she returned to the parking lot some five minutes later and the truck was in the same position, she parked her patrol car behind the truck, activated her blue lights, and called in the license plate number.

As Officer Bige walked toward the truck, she noticed that the window on the driver's side was rolled down. She asked the Defendant “if he was okay,” and he replied, “I'm fine.” At that point, Officer Bige saw an open beer can in a cup holder on the dash of the truck and keys in the ignition. When she asked why he was parked there, the Defendant replied that he was “just there” and admitted that he had been drinking “a few beers.” According to the officer, the Defendant appeared to be “disoriented, very slow to speak, very sleepy acting,” and he was unable to produce either identification or registration for the truck. When Officer Bige's sergeant arrived at the scene, the Defendant struggled to get out of his vehicle and then performed poorly on three field sobriety tests. After being arrested for driving under the influence, the Defendant consented to a test for blood alcohol content, which registered 0.19%.

During cross-examination at the suppression hearing, Officer Bige stated that the Defendant was the only person in the parking lot at the time of his arrest. She conceded that she did not see him drive the truck or otherwise do anything illegal before she approached the vehicle. The officer agreed that the Defendant did not appear to be in need of medical assistance and explained that she stopped to investigate only because it appeared “strange that a car would be ... in a parking lot at almost ... 2 a.m. with the lights on.” She acknowledged that when she turned on the blue lights, it was “fair to say that [the Defendant] was not free to leave.”

At the conclusion of Officer Bige's testimony, the trial court denied the Defendant's motion to suppress, holding that under these circumstances a police officer, in the role of a community caretaker, is permitted to approach a parked vehicle and to ask for the driver's identification and proof of vehicle registration, and, upon observing possible criminal activity, to detain, further investigate, and ultimately make an arrest.

B. Trial

Only Officer Bige and the Defendant testified at trial. The officer repeated the testimony that she had provided at the hearing on the motion to suppress. She stated that she observed while her sergeant

[403 S.W.3d 176]

first administered the nystagmus test 2 and then asked the Defendant to do a finger count and recite the alphabet. In her opinion, the Defendant was unable to perform the finger count or to accurately recite the alphabet. As indicated, a blood sample taken from the Defendant established that his blood alcohol content was well over the legal limit.

The Defendant presented a convoluted explanation designed to show that even though he had been drinking excessively, he had not driven his truck to the parking lot. He testified that several hours before his arrest, Bill Hyatt, with whom he had worked years earlier, and a second man, whom he could not identify, stopped by his residence for a visit. He claimed that the unidentified man left after a brief period of time. The Defendant related that he then drove Hyatt to the Log Cabin Bar for drinks and that, later, the unidentified man met them at the bar but did not drink. According to the Defendant, when the three men left the bar, Hyatt drove the pick-up truck, the Defendant rode in the passenger seat, and the unidentified man followed in his separate vehicle. The Defendant stated that when they arrived at the BI–LO parking lot, the other two men left in the unidentified man's vehicle. He explained that he moved into the driver's seat because it was a cold night, cool temperatures exacerbated his pain from a prior back injury, and the truck only had heat on the driver's side. The Defendant contended that when Officer Bige drove by the first time, his truck's engine was running (presumably to heat the interior), but that he had turned the engine off by the time of her return. While asserting that he was not aware of the presence of the beer in his truck, the Defendant admitted that he was intoxicated. He also acknowledged that when questioned at the scene, he did not inform Officer Bige about Hyatt or the unidentified man.

At the conclusion of the proof, the jury found the Defendant guilty of driving under the influence, his fourth offense, and thus a Class E felony. The trial court imposed a Range I sentence of two years.

C. Appeal

On the appeal as of right, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the Defendant had been seized by Officer Bige at the time the blue lights were activated, reversed the conviction, and dismissed the charge, concluding that at the time of the seizure, the officer lacked a reasonable suspicion based upon specific and articulable facts that the Defendant had either committed a criminal offense or was about to do so. Citing State v. Williams, 185 S.W.3d 311 (Tenn.2006), the Court of Criminal Appeals held that these circumstances did not fall within the officer's community caretaking function because “ ‘the [D]efendant's encounter with the officer was not voluntary, but rather occurred under a show of authority—the activation of the blue emergency lights—from which a reasonable person would not have felt free to leave.’ ” State v. Moats, No. E2010–02013–CCA–R3–CD, 2011 WL 5374129, at *4 (Tenn.Crim.App. Nov. 8, 2011) (quoting Williams, 185 S.W.3d at 317).

This Court granted the State's application for permission to appeal to consider whether the actions of the arresting officer

[403 S.W.3d 177]

qualified as within her community caretaking role and, therefore, required neither the probable cause necessary to support an arrest nor the level of reasonable suspicion, supported by specific and articulable facts, necessary to support an investigatory stop.

II. Standard of Review

The standard of review applicable to suppression issues is well established. When the trial court makes findings of fact after a suppression hearing, its conclusions are binding upon this Court unless the evidence in the record preponderates otherwise. State v. Odom, 928 S.W.2d 18, 23 (Tenn.1996). As a general rule, “[q]uestions of credibility of the witnesses, the weight and value of the evidence, and resolution of conflicts in the evidence are matters entrusted to the trial judge as the trier of fact.” Id. When the findings of fact are based entirely on evidence that does not involve issues of witness credibility, an appellate court conducts a de novo review. State v. Binette, 33 S.W.3d 215, 217 (Tenn.2000). Review of a trial court's application of law to the facts is de novo with no presumption of correctness. State v. Walton, 41 S.W.3d 75, 81 (Tenn.2001) (citing State v. Crutcher, 989 S.W.2d 295, 299 (Tenn.1999)).

III. Analysis

Both the federal and state constitutions provide protections from unreasonable searches and seizures; the...

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47 practice notes
  • State v. McCormick, No. M2013–02189–SC–R11–CD
    • United States
    • Tennessee Supreme Court
    • May 10, 2016
    ...S. BIVINS and HOLLY KIRBY, JJ., joined. OPINION CORNELIA A. CLARK, J.We granted this appeal to reconsider our decision in State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170 (Tenn.2013), which held that the community caretaking doctrine is not an exception to the federal and state constitutional warrant require......
  • Jarrett v. Cooper, No. 10-1192-JDB-egb
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Tennessee
    • September 23, 2013
    ...863 S.W.2d 29, 30 (Tenn. 1993) (officer approached parked car, which "might have started rolling a little bit"); see also State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170, 188, 2013 WL 1181967, at *13 (Tenn. 2013) (activation of blue lights when approaching a car parked with its lights on in shopping center ......
  • State v. Smith, No. E2013-00215-CCA-R3-CD
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee. Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee
    • August 27, 2014
    ...designed to 'safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions of government officials.'"' State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170, 177 (Tenn. 2013) ((quoting State v. Randolph, 74 S.W.3d 330, 334 (Tenn. 2002) (quoting Camara v. Mun. Ct., 387 U.S. 523, 528, (1967))). The ......
  • State v. Carter, No. M2014-01532-CCA-R3-CD
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee. Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee
    • March 8, 2016
    ...will bring local officials in "plain view" of evidence, fruits, or instrumentalities of a crime, or contraband.'" State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170, 182 (Tenn. 2013) (quoting Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 442, (1973)). "The 'automobile exception' to the warrant requirement permits an offic......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
47 cases
  • State v. McCormick, No. M2013–02189–SC–R11–CD
    • United States
    • Tennessee Supreme Court
    • May 10, 2016
    ...S. BIVINS and HOLLY KIRBY, JJ., joined. OPINION CORNELIA A. CLARK, J.We granted this appeal to reconsider our decision in State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170 (Tenn.2013), which held that the community caretaking doctrine is not an exception to the federal and state constitutional warrant require......
  • Jarrett v. Cooper, No. 10-1192-JDB-egb
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Tennessee
    • September 23, 2013
    ...863 S.W.2d 29, 30 (Tenn. 1993) (officer approached parked car, which "might have started rolling a little bit"); see also State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170, 188, 2013 WL 1181967, at *13 (Tenn. 2013) (activation of blue lights when approaching a car parked with its lights on in shopping center ......
  • State v. Smith, No. E2013-00215-CCA-R3-CD
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee. Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee
    • August 27, 2014
    ...designed to 'safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions of government officials.'"' State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170, 177 (Tenn. 2013) ((quoting State v. Randolph, 74 S.W.3d 330, 334 (Tenn. 2002) (quoting Camara v. Mun. Ct., 387 U.S. 523, 528, (1967))). The ......
  • State v. Carter, No. M2014-01532-CCA-R3-CD
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Tennessee. Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee
    • March 8, 2016
    ...will bring local officials in "plain view" of evidence, fruits, or instrumentalities of a crime, or contraband.'" State v. Moats, 403 S.W.3d 170, 182 (Tenn. 2013) (quoting Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433, 442, (1973)). "The 'automobile exception' to the warrant requirement permits an offic......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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