State v. Smith, M2013-02818-SC-R11-CD

CourtSupreme Court of Tennessee
Decision Date11 February 2016
Docket NumberNo. M2013-02818-SC-R11-CD,M2013-02818-SC-R11-CD


No. M2013-02818-SC-R11-CD


September 30, 2015 Session
February 11, 2016

Appeal from the Court of Criminal Appeals Circuit Court for Williamson County
No. II-CR077410
James G. Martin, III, Judge

We granted permission to appeal in this case to determine whether the traffic stop of the Defendant, Linzey Danielle Smith, violated the constitutional rights of the Defendant. The arresting officer initiated the stop after observing the Defendant once cross and twice touch the fog line marking the outer right lane boundary on an interstate highway. After being pulled over, the Defendant was charged with alternative counts of driving under the influence. The Defendant filed a motion to suppress, contending that the traffic stop was unconstitutional. After a hearing, the trial court denied the motion to suppress. The Defendant then pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and reserved a certified question of law regarding the legality of her traffic stop. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the judgment. We hold that the traffic stop was supported by reasonable suspicion and therefore met constitutional requirements. Accordingly, we affirm the Defendant's judgment of conviction.

Tenn. R. App. P. 11; Judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals Affirmed

JEFFREY S. BIVINS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SHARON G. LEE, C.J., and CORNELIA A. CLARK and HOLLY KIRBY, JJ., joined.

Patrick B. Newsom, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Linzey Danielle Smith.

Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Andrée S. Blumstein, Solicitor General; Leslie E. Price, Senior Counsel; Kim R. Helper, District Attorney General; and Carlin Hess, Assistant District Attorney, for the appellee, the State of Tennessee.

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Factual and Procedural History

The Defendant was charged in July 2013 with two alternative counts of driving under the influence. The Defendant filed a motion to suppress on the basis that her traffic stop was unconstitutional. At the ensuing hearing, held in October 2013, the following proof was adduced:

Trooper Chuck Achinger of the Tennessee Highway Patrol testified that, at approximately 3:00 a.m. on December 6, 2012, he was travelling north on I-65 in Williamson County, Tennessee. As he neared the 72 mile marker, he noticed a car in front of him "drift over towards the shoulder" as it entered a "big swooping curve." He then observed the vehicle cross the fog line2 "by less than six inches, probably." As the car came out of the curve, "it corrected itself back into its lane, and then it drifted back over to the right and almost went all the way over the fog line again. It corrected itself. And then, again, it went back over and just barely touched the fog line again." Trooper Achinger clarified that, when the car crossed the fog line, both tires on the right side of the car crossed the line "[e]ntirely." Trooper Achinger observed this driving behavior over the course of four to five tenths of a mile. He acknowledged that the Defendant's driving did not endanger any other vehicles.

Trooper Achinger continued to follow the car for approximately two more miles and observed no further driving infractions. Nevertheless, he stopped the vehicle after it exited the interstate. He testified that he stopped the driver because she failed to maintain her lane of travel as required by Tennessee Code Annotated section 55-8-123.

Trooper Achinger testified that he video-recorded the car as he followed it, but the video did not record the fog line crossing because the camera was "zoomed in" to the extent that, during the curve, it was "facing off into the distance." The video recording was admitted into evidence and accords with Trooper Achinger's testimony.

The trial court accredited Trooper Achinger's testimony and determined that he had probable cause to stop the Defendant based on his observation of the car crossing the fog line, thereby violating Tennessee Code Annotated section 55-8-123. Accordingly, the trial court denied the Defendant's motion to suppress. The Defendant subsequently pleaded guilty to one count of driving under the influence and reserved the following certified question of law:

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Whether the stop of Defendant's vehicle by trooper Charles C. Achinger of Tennessee Highway Patrol on December 6th, 2012, violated Defendant's rights granted pursuant to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, Section[] 7 of the Tennessee Constitution and whether any evidence, statements and blood tests obtained as a result of said stop should be suppressed as the fruits of an unconstitutional seizure, due to the fact that there was no probable cause that a traffic violation ha[d] been committed under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-231(1), and there was no reasonable suspicion based on the totality of the circumstances, where Defendant was observed driving on a winding and sloping portion of a roadway for a distance of approximately 2.5 miles.

The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment on the merits, with one judge dissenting. See State v. Smith, No. M2013-02818-CCA-R3-CD, 2015 WL 412972, at *9 (Tenn. Crim. App. Feb. 2, 2015). We subsequently granted the Defendant's application for permission to appeal.

Standard of Review

We will uphold a trial court's findings of fact at a suppression hearing unless the evidence preponderates to the contrary. State v. Odom, 928 S.W.2d 18, 23 (Tenn. 1996). "Questions 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. "We afford to the party prevailing in the trial court the strongest legitimate view of the evidence and all reasonable and legitimate inferences that may be drawn from that evidence." State v. Keith, 978 S.W.2d 861, 864 (Tenn. 1998). As to the trial court's application of the law to the facts, however, we apply a de novo standard of review. Id.

Warrantless Seizures

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons . . . against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no [w]arrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." U.S. Const. amend. IV. "The purpose of the prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment is to 'safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions of government officials.'" State v. Yeargan, 958 S.W.2d 626, 629 (Tenn. 1997) (quoting Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 528 (1967)).

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Likewise, Article I, Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution provides that "the people shall be secure in their persons . . . from unreasonable searches and seizures." Tenn. Const. art. I, § 7. This Court has stated that the Tennessee Constitution's search and seizure provision "is identical in intent and purpose with the Fourth Amendment." Sneed v. State, 423 S.W.2d 857, 860 (Tenn. 1968); see also, e.g., State v. Scarborough, 201 S.W.3d 607, 622 (Tenn. 2006). Accordingly, "under both the federal and state constitutions, a warrantless search or seizure is presumed unreasonable, and evidence discovered as a result thereof is subject to suppression unless the State demonstrates that the search or seizure was conducted pursuant to one of the narrowly defined exceptions to the warrant requirement." Yeargan, 958 S.W.2d at 629 (citing Coolidge v. New Hampshire, 403 U.S. 443, 454-55 (1971); State v. Bartram, 925 S.W.2d 227, 229-30 (Tenn. 1996)).

Individuals do not lose their constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by getting into an automobile. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 662-63 (1979). Therefore, when a police officer seizes a motorist by turning on his blue lights in order to pull the motorist over, the stop must pass constitutional muster. See State v. Pulley, 863 S.W.2d 29, 30 (Tenn. 1993). The reasonableness of such seizures, and therefore their legality, "depends on a balance between the public interest and the individual's right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers." United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873, 878 (1975) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 20-21 (1968); Camara, 387 U.S. at 536-37).

Probable Cause and Reasonable Suspicion

A police officer's traffic stop of a motorist will pass constitutional muster if the officer has "probable cause" to believe that the motorist has committed a traffic offense. See State v. Vineyard, 958 S.W.2d 730, 736 (Tenn. 1997) (holding that officers' observation of defendant's violations of traffic laws created probable cause to stop defendant); see also United States v. Barry, 98 F.3d 373, 376 (8th Cir. 1996) (recognizing that even minor traffic violations create probable cause to stop the driver); State v. Berrios, 235 S.W.3d 99, 105 (Tenn. 2007) (recognizing that, "[a]s a general rule, if the police have probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred, the stop is constitutionally reasonable" (citing Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996))). "Articulating precisely what . . . 'probable cause' mean[s] is not possible." Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 695 (1996). Rather, probable cause is a "practical, nontechnical" concept. State v. Jacumin, 778 S.W.2d 430, 432 (Tenn. 1989) (quoting Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 231 (1983)). As we recently reiterated, "probable cause exists when 'at the time of the [seizure], the facts and circumstances within the knowledge of the officers, and of which they had reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient to warrant a prudent person in believing that the defendant had committed or

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was committing an offense.'" State v. Dotson, 450 S.W.3d 1, 50 (Tenn. 2014) (quoting State v. Echols, 382 S.W.3d 266, 277-78 (Tenn. 2012)).

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