State v. Vaughn

Decision Date10 July 2007
Docket NumberNo. 05-484.,05-484.
Citation2007 MT 164,338 Mont. 97,164 P.3d 873
PartiesSTATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Ronald Wayne VAUGHN, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Jack H. Morris; Jardine & Morris, Whitehall, Montana.

For Respondent: Mike McGrath, Attorney General; Tammy Plubell, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Marty Lambert, Gallatin County Attorney; Eric N. Kitzmiller, Deputy County Attorney, Bozeman, Montana.

Chief Justice KARLA M. GRAY delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Ronald Wayne Vaughn (Vaughn) appeals from the judgment entered by the Eighteenth Judicial District Court, Gallatin County, on his convictions and sentences for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), a felony, in violation of § 61-8-401, MCA, and driving with a suspended or revoked license, a misdemeanor, in violation of § 61-5-212, MCA. We affirm.

¶ 2 Vaughn raises the following issues on appeal:

¶ 3 1. Did the District Court err in denying Vaughn's motion to suppress evidence?

¶ 4 2. Did the District Court abuse its discretion in denying Vaughn's motion for a new trial based on his claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel?

¶ 5 3. Did the District Court err in sentencing Vaughn as a persistent felony offender?

BACKGROUND

¶ 6 At approximately 1:30 a.m. on February 17, 2004, Gallatin County Sheriff's Deputy James Phillips (Phillips) was on patrol driving southbound on Jackrabbit Lane in Gallatin County, Montana, when he received information from dispatch regarding a possible intoxicated driver. According to the dispatcher, a convenience store clerk had telephoned 9-1-1 to report that an apparently intoxicated man had purchased a can of beer from the store, entered a vehicle and drove away. The clerk reported that the man was driving a silver-colored Subaru WRX with no rear license plate and was headed northbound on Jackrabbit Lane.

¶ 7 At about the same time he received this dispatch report, Phillips observed a silver Subaru approaching his patrol vehicle on Jackrabbit Lane. As the two vehicles passed, Phillips observed the Subaru was slowing down and pulling to the side of the highway. Phillips then observed in his rearview mirror that the Subaru had stopped and was parked straddling the fog line with half the vehicle on the shoulder of the highway and half the vehicle in the northbound lane of travel. Phillips turned his patrol vehicle around, parked approximately 25 feet behind the Subaru and activated his vehicle's rear amber flashing lights to warn approaching drivers of the two vehicles' location. Phillips then approached the Subaru on foot and made contact with the driver, who eventually was identified as Vaughn. The situation culminated in Phillips arresting Vaughn for DUI.

¶ 8 On February 25, 2004, the State of Montana (State) charged Vaughn by information with the offenses of DUI and driving with a suspended or revoked license. Based on information that Vaughn had seven prior DUI convictions, the State charged the DUI offense as a felony. On that same day, the State filed notice of its intent to seek a persistent felony offender designation based on Vaughn's conviction for felony DUI in April of 2002. The District Court subsequently appointed William A. Bartlett (Bartlett) to represent Vaughn in the proceedings.

¶ 9 The defense filed several pretrial motions, including a motion to suppress evidence and a motion to strike the State's notice of intent to seek persistent felony offender designation. In his motion to suppress, Vaughn asserted that all evidence obtained after Phillips stopped behind Vaughn's vehicle must be suppressed because Phillips did not have sufficient particularized suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop and Phillips' actions were not justified as a welfare check under the community caretaker doctrine. In his motion to strike the persistent felony offender notice, Vaughn argued that his 2002 DUI conviction could not be used as a predicate felony conviction for purposes of a persistent felony offender designation because the DUI sentencing statute in effect at that time did not authorize imposition of a term of imprisonment in excess of one year. The District Court held an evidentiary hearing and subsequently denied Vaughn's motions to suppress and to strike the persistent felony offender notice.

¶ 10 The case proceeded to a jury trial. On the morning of trial, Vaughn pled guilty to the misdemeanor driving with a suspended or revoked license charge. The jury later found Vaughn guilty of the DUI charge. The District Court scheduled a sentencing hearing and ordered preparation of a presentence investigation report.

¶ 11 Vaughn subsequently began sending the District Court letters on his own behalf raising several concerns regarding the conduct of the trial and Bartlett's actions in representing him. As a result, Bartlett moved for — and the District Court granted — leave to withdraw as Vaughn's counsel. Vaughn then filed a motion for a new trial, asserting in part that he received ineffective assistance of counsel during both the pretrial and trial phases of the proceedings. The District Court eventually appointed Jack H. Morris to represent Vaughn in the post-trial proceedings and scheduled an evidentiary hearing on Vaughn's motion for a new trial. After the hearing, the District Court denied Vaughn's motion.

¶ 12 The District Court then held a sentencing hearing and sentenced Vaughn as a persistent felony offender to a 50-year term at the Montana State Prison and a concurrent 6-month term in the Gallatin County Detention Center for the offense of driving with a suspended or revoked license. Vaughn appeals his convictions and sentences.

DISCUSSION

¶ 13 1. Did the District Court err in denying Vaughn's motion to suppress evidence?

¶ 14 Vaughn moved the District Court to suppress all evidence obtained after Phillips stopped behind Vaughn's vehicle because Phillips did not have sufficient particularized suspicion to conduct an investigatory stop and no other justification existed for the stop. The State responded, in part, by arguing that Phillips' conduct in approaching Vaughn's vehicle was justified as a welfare check under the community caretaker doctrine, which then ripened into a DUI investigation. The District Court held an evidentiary hearing on the motion to suppress at which Phillips was the only witness to testify. Following the hearing, the District Court entered its findings of fact, conclusions of law and order denying the motion to suppress. Vaughn asserts error.

¶ 15 We review a district court's ruling on a criminal defendant's motion to suppress evidence to determine whether the court's findings of fact are clearly erroneous and whether the court correctly applied those findings as a matter of law. State v. Wheeler, 2006 MT 38, ¶ 12, 331 Mont. 179, ¶ 12, 134 P.3d 38, ¶ 12. "A court's findings of fact are clearly erroneous if they are not supported by substantial credible evidence, the court has misapprehended the effect of the evidence, or our review of the record convinces us that a mistake has been committed." Wheeler, ¶ 12.

¶ 16 In its order denying Vaughn's motion to suppress, the District Court made findings of fact based on Phillips' testimony. Specifically, the court found that at approximately 1:30 a.m. on February 17, 2004, Phillips was on patrol traveling southbound on Jackrabbit Lane when he received a report from dispatch regarding a possible drunk driver. The report indicated the alleged drunk driver was traveling northbound on Jackrabbit Lane in a Subaru WRX. As Phillips was receiving this dispatch report, he observed a silver Subaru traveling toward him, but was unable to determine whether the vehicle was the same vehicle as described in the report. As the Subaru passed Phillips' patrol vehicle, Phillips observed the Subaru begin to pull over to the side of the highway. Phillips then observed in his rearview mirror that the Subaru had stopped on the side of the highway, with half the vehicle on the shoulder of the highway and half still in the northbound lane of travel. Phillips believed the driver of the vehicle might be in need of assistance. Consequently, Phillips turned his patrol car around, parked behind the Subaru, approached the vehicle on foot, identified himself as a peace officer and inquired as to the driver's welfare.

¶ 17 The only challenge Vaughn raises regarding this initial portion of the District Court's findings of fact is his contention that the court's finding that Phillips observed the Subaru stop on the highway half on the shoulder and half in the lane of travel is clearly erroneous. In support of this contention, Vaughn asserts that, had he testified at the suppression hearing, he would have stated that he had pulled his vehicle completely off the highway when he stopped and no portion of his vehicle was in the lane of travel. The obvious — and fatal — flaw in this argument is that Vaughn did not testify at the suppression hearing. As a result, the only evidence before the District Court was Phillips' testimony that the Subaru was half on the shoulder of the highway and half in the lane of travel. Thus, the District Court's finding of fact in this regard is supported by substantial credible evidence of record and is not otherwise clearly erroneous. See Wheeler, ¶ 12.

¶ 18 Based on the above stated findings, the District Court concluded that Phillips' conduct in stopping behind and approaching the Subaru was justified as a welfare check under the community caretaker doctrine. We first adopted the community caretaker doctrine in State v. Lovegren, 2002 MT 153, 310 Mont. 358, 51 P.3d 471. In that case, we observed that "[n]ot all contact between police officers and citizens involves the `seizure' of a person under the Fourth Amendment," and certain police-citizen encounters simply are a result of law enforcement's...

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