State v. Sierra, 870350-CA

Decision Date18 May 1988
Docket NumberNo. 870350-CA,870350-CA
Citation754 P.2d 972
PartiesSTATE of Utah, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Sigifredo Eduardo SIERRA, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

James L. Shumate (argued), Cedar City, for defendant and appellant.

David L. Wilkinson, Atty. Gen., Sandra L. Sjogren (argued), Asst. Atty. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.




Sigifredo Eduardo Sierra ("Sierra") appeals from his conviction for possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute for value, in violation of Utah Code Ann. § 58-37-8 (1986). Sierra contends the police officer's stop of his car was a pretext, in violation of his fourth amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. 1

Because a determination of the constitutionality of a police officer's stop of a person under the fourth amendment turns upon the facts of each case, we review the facts in detail. State v. Trujillo, 739 P.2d 85, 86 (Utah Ct.App.1987). During the afternoon of March 6, 1987, Officer Smith, while traveling north on Interstate 15 near Leeds, Utah, noticed the car in front of him had New York license plates. As Officer Smith passed the car, he noticed Sierra, the driver, glance at him and then look quickly away and "kinda bow his head." Officer Smith radioed the car's license plate number to the dispatcher in Cedar City, requesting a computer check on the car. The check revealed the car had not been stolen. Nonetheless, based upon Sierra's purported "suspicious nature and the way [Sierra] reacted when he [saw] me," Officer Smith informed the dispatcher that he was "going to go after the vehicle and check [it] more closely" and requested back-up assistance. Consequently, Officer Smith accelerated, exceeding the posted maximum speed limit, to catch the car.

Officer Smith discovered the car traveling in the left lane of the highway which was designed for two lanes proceeding in the same direction. Officer Smith followed the car as it traveled 56 miles per hour and passed two other cars which were in the right lane. The car remained in the left lane for "40 to 50 seconds" according to Officer Smith. Officer Smith surmised that Sierra could have returned to the right lane on "a couple" of occasions, but did not. Officer Smith "decided [he'd] stop this vehicle and explain to [Sierra] [Utah's] left-lane law, giving him a warning for traveling in the left lane and not yielding immediately." Officer Smith, while still in the left lane, turned on the patrol car's red light and signaled the car to pull over.

Officer Smith approached the car and asked Sierra for a driver's license and the car's registration. Sierra produced a valid registration and stated that his name was Sigfredo Eduardo Sherra, that his birthdate was April 4, 1961, and that he had lost his wallet and therefore could not furnish his New York driver's license. Officer Smith issued Sierra a traffic citation for driving without a license and a warning for driving in the left lane in violation of Utah Code Ann. § 41-6-55 (1987).

A conversation between Officer Smith and Sierra ensued in which Officer Smith asked Sierra if he was transporting "narcotics weapons, or anything illegal." Sierra responded, "no, no. Do you want to look in my trunk ?" (Emphasis added.) Sierra, after recovering his keys, opened the trunk of the car himself. Officer Smith and his requested back-up officer then searched the trunk of the car, discovering a bag, toilet articles, and a brand new hydraulic floor jack. Officer Smith, for some reason that is not clear from a review of the record, shifted his attention to the front passenger area of the car. Officer Smith opened the door of the car and, "on the side of the front seat, the passenger side, between the seat and the door," found a wallet. Officer Smith opened the wallet. It contained an alien card with defendant's name, Sigifredo Eduardo Sierra Parra, on it, giving a birthdate of April 10, 1961; and a New York driver's license. After asking Sierra to explain the discrepancy in the name and birthdate given by him, and those given on the alien card and driver's license, Officer Smith began looking underneath the car and noticed the gas tank had recently been removed and that it hung down further from the car than normal. Officer Smith then retrieved the key from the trunk, and "put the keys in the ignition to seek how much gas was in the tank." The gas gauge "immediately went past full." Officer Smith then tapped along the bottom of the gas tank, concluding the tank "was nowhere near full." Officer Smith ultimately arrested Sierra for furnishing false information regarding Sierra's name and birthdate.

Incident to his arrest, Sierra's car was impounded and transported to Cedar City, Utah. Officer Smith obtained a search warrant to search the car, based upon the suspicious nature of the gas tank. The search revealed 15 packages totaling 31.3 pounds of 96% pure cocaine in a secret compartment located above the gas tank. Consequently, Sierra was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute.

Sierra filed a motion to suppress the cocaine confiscated during the search of the car, arguing the initial stop of his car violated his fourth amendment rights. At the suppression hearing, Sierra contended that Officer Smith had not stopped the car to issue a traffic citation, but rather that the stop was a pretext to search for evidence of drug trafficking. He argued, therefore, that all subsequently obtained evidence must be suppressed as unconstitutionally tainted. The state argued that Officer Smith's initial stop was valid and that any search was, in any event, based on "defendant's voluntary volitional consent to search." The trial court denied Sierra's motion to suppress the cocaine, finding that Officer Smith's stop of Sierra's vehicle was not a pretext and that Officer Smith, after the stop, had reasonable suspicion to believe Sierra was engaged in criminal activity. The court made no findings on the consent issue. Sierra subsequently pled no contest to the charge and was sentenced to an indeterminate term of 1 to 15 years in the Utah State Prison. This appeal followed.

The issues on appeal are whether Officer Smith's initial stop of Sierra was constitutional under the fourth amendment and, if not, whether Sierra's subsequent consent to the search of the car's trunk purged the taint of the otherwise unconstitutional stop. The trial judge is in the best position to assess the witnesses' credibility in a motion to suppress proceeding. State v. Ashe, 745 P.2d 1255, 1258 (Utah 1987). Accordingly, we will not disturb the trial court's factual evaluation underlying its decision to grant or deny a motion to suppress unless it is clearly erroneous. State v. Mendoza, 748 P.2d 181, 183 (Utah 1987); Ashe, 745 P.2d at 1258.


"Stop" as a Fourth Amendment Seizure

The fourth amendment provides that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...." U.S. Const. Amend. IV. Accordingly, it functions to "prevent arbitrary and oppressive interference by enforcement officials with the privacy and personal security of individuals." State v. Trujillo, 739 P.2d 85, 87 (Utah Ct.App.1987) (quoting United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 553-54, 100 S.Ct. 1870, 1876, 64 L.Ed.2d 497 (1980)).

The fourth amendment applies to brief investigatory stops that fall short of official traditional arrests. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 16-17, 88 S.Ct. 1868, 1877, 20 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968). The stopping of an automobile and the consequent detention of its occupants constitute a "seizure" within the meaning of the fourth amendment, despite the fact that the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief. Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S.Ct. 1391, 1395, 59 L.Ed.2d 660 (1979); State v. Cole, 674 P.2d 119, 123 (Utah 1983). Therefore, Officer Smith's stop of Sierra must comport with the constitutional protections afforded by the fourth amendment.

The constitutionality of governmental seizures is judged by balancing their intrusion into the privacy of individuals' lives against their promotion of the legitimate governmental interest of crime prevention and detection. See Trujillo, 739 P.2d at 87. Balancing these legal principles, the United States Supreme Court has reasoned that a police officer, in appropriate circumstances and in an appropriate manner, may approach a person to investigate suspected criminal conduct notwithstanding the lack of probable cause to make an arrest. Terry, 392 U.S. at 22, 88 S.Ct. at 1880; Trujillo, 739 P.2d at 87.

Officer Smith's stop of Sierra can be constitutionally justified on one of two alternative grounds. First, it could be based on specific, articulable facts which, together with rational inferences drawn from those facts, would lead a reasonable person to conclude Sierra had committed or was about to commit a crime. Terry, 392 U.S. at 21, 88 S.Ct. at 1879; State v. Christensen, 676 P.2d 408, 412 (Utah 1984); Trujillo, 739 P.2d at 88. Second, the stop could be incident to a lawful citation for the traffic violation of driving unlawfully in the left lane. "Anything less would invite intrusions upon constitutionally guaranteed rights based on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches, a result [the United States Supreme Court] has consistently refused to sanction." Terry, 392 U.S. at 21-22, 88 S.Ct. at 1879-80; State v. Elliott, 626 P.2d 423, 425 (Utah 1981).

II. Reasonable Suspicion

Section 77-7-15 is the statutory codification of the constitutionally mandated "reasonable suspicion" standard for a constitutional stop. Utah Code Ann. § 77-7-15 (1982); Trujillo, 739 P.2d at 88. This section provides that

A peace officer may stop any person in a public place when he has a reasonable suspicion to believe ...

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