State v. Winters

Citation131 A.3d 186
Decision Date04 September 2015
Docket NumberNo. 13–477.,13–477.
Parties STATE of Vermont v. Adam WINTERS.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

131 A.3d 186

STATE of Vermont

No. 13–477.

Supreme Court of Vermont.

Sept. 4, 2015.

131 A.3d 187

David W. Gartenstein, Windham County Deputy State's Attorney, Brattleboro, for Plaintiff–Appellee.

Matthew F. Valerio, Defender General, Anna Saxman, Deputy Defender General, and Sara Puls, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Defendant–Appellant.


131 A.3d 188


¶ 1. Defendant appeals from his conditional guilty plea to possession of cocaine, challenging the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress. Defendant maintains that he was illegally seized when a police officer approached his parked car twice in a short period and, during the second encounter, asked him pointed questions about drugs. We agree, and therefore reverse and remand the trial court's decision.

¶ 2. The events that gave rise to defendant's motion to suppress occurred in the early morning hours of June 27, 2012, at the Vermont Welcome Center rest area, just off I–91 in Guilford. The rest area is open twenty-four hours for motorists to use the restrooms and purchase refreshments. Around 1:00 a.m., a Vermont state trooper was checking license plates in the rest area parking lot when he identified a vehicle as belonging to a woman whose license was suspended. The trooper approached the vehicle and observed defendant, a male, asleep in the driver's seat. The trooper did not make contact with defendant at this time.

¶ 3. The trooper returned to his cruiser and searched the police database, where he learned that a white male named Adam Winters, whose license was also suspended, lived at the same address as the woman who owned the car. The trooper returned to the vehicle and knocked on the window, waking the occupant who confirmed that he was Adam Winters.1 The trooper asked defendant why he had been driving with a suspended license. Defendant explained that he had been driving north on I–91 in Massachusetts around 10:00 p.m. when he hit a deer near the Vermont border, disabling his headlight. According to defendant, a Massachusetts state trooper advised him to park overnight at the rest area rather than drive with one headlight. Defendant confirmed that he was driving his girlfriend's car and told the trooper that she was going to pick him up in the morning. When the trooper inquired about defendant's whereabouts in Massachusetts, defendant could not provide a specific answer.2 The trooper told defendant not to drive without a license and to make sure that someone else picked up the car. The trooper left the scene without issuing defendant a citation, telling defendant to "rack out."

¶ 4. Ten to fifteen minutes later, by the trooper's estimate, the trooper returned to the scene with another trooper. He had learned that defendant had been arrested several times, with his most recent drug arrest in 2005. The trooper again knocked on defendant's window, rousing defendant from sleep. The trooper said that he had learned that defendant had been arrested for "some drug stuff in the past" and asked defendant if he was still involved in the drug trade. Defendant replied "no," and said that he had been taking Suboxone for four years.3 The trooper responded that he was glad that Suboxone was working for defendant. The trooper then asked, "Given your history, coming from Massachusetts, you haven't really told me

131 A.3d 189

where you're coming from. Do you have anything that you're not supposed to have on you? Do you have anything in the car you shouldn't possess?" Defendant responded that he had needles but that they were old.4 The trooper then asked defendant if he would give consent to search his person or the vehicle. Defendant replied that he just wanted to go back to sleep. The trooper then said, "What's gonna happen is I've got a canine coming down. He's gonna check the car. If he alerts to the car, everything's getting seized."

¶ 5. At this point, defendant reached over toward the passenger seat where the trooper could not see. The trooper ordered defendant to stop. Defendant opened the door, and the trooper noticed a knife on the passenger seat. Defendant reached for the knife. The trooper pulled out his gun, and defendant put down the knife and exited the vehicle. After exiting the vehicle, defendant eventually consented to search of his person. The trooper again asked defendant for consent to search the vehicle, informing defendant that if he did not consent and the dogs alerted to the car, he would seize the car and apply for a search warrant. Defendant eventually signed a consent form authorizing the troopers to search the vehicle. According to the trooper's affidavit, the entire encounter lasted approximately fifty minutes from the time he first woke defendant to the time defendant signed the consent card.

¶ 6. In the car, police found a small quantity of crack cocaine, eleven clear plastic glassine baggie corners with white powder residue, and a crushed soda can with cocaine residue. Defendant admitted that he had used the can to smoke crack cocaine earlier that day and that he had purchased the crack cocaine from a dealer in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Defendant stated that he made a trip to purchase crack cocaine approximately once per month and smoked it for stress relief. Defendant was subsequently charged with possession of cocaine.

¶ 7. In October 2012, defendant moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that there were no facts to warrant the trooper approaching his car. Defendant asserted that he had been illegally seized when the trooper awoke him a second time, with a second trooper present, and asked pointed questions about his drug history. Defendant was told that there was a canine unit en route if he was unwilling to cooperate. Defendant noted that this was the second time that he had been approached and each time the police involvement increased. Defendant maintained that a reasonable person, under these circumstances, would not have felt free to terminate the police encounter. Absent any reasonable and articulable suspicion of criminal activity, defendant argued, the trooper had no legal reason to stop him. Thus, according to defendant, the court must find that he was illegally seized and all evidence obtained as a result of the seizure must be suppressed.

¶ 8. The State opposed the motion. It argued that no seizure occurred until approximately

131 A.3d 190

2:00 am. At that point, defendant told the trooper that he was using Suboxone and that he had hypodermic needles in the car, and the trooper asked defendant for consent to search the car, indicated that a narcotics canine was en route, and communicated that he would be seizing defendant and his car if the canine alerted to the presence of drugs. The State maintained that this encounter and all of the trooper's encounters with defendant were supported by reasonable suspicion of a motor vehicle violation and criminal activity. The State also noted that defendant's actions, including his initial declination of consent to search, his indication that he did not want to do anything, and his declaration that he was going back to sleep, all demonstrated that a similarly situated reasonable person would not have felt obligated to answer police questions and would not have concluded that he was being detained.

¶ 9. Following a July 2013 hearing, and additional filings by each side, the court denied the motion to suppress. It found that although the trooper's first encounter with defendant appeared to have been consensual, the trooper developed sufficient information during this encounter to justify his final approach. The court determined that defendant was operating a motor vehicle with his license suspended in violation of 23 V.S.A. § 674, an ongoing violation that fully justified stopping him as long as he was in the driver's seat of the car. The court found that even if the trooper intended to pursue a drug investigation, his subjective motivation was irrelevant. Objectively speaking, the court reasoned, defendant's suspended license provided a sufficient basis for the stop. In the course of that stop, the troopers developed sufficient information to justify an escalation of the investigation, i.e., defendant was in possession of hypodermic needles for a drug that is not administered intravenously and he had a prior drug conviction.

¶ 10. In reaching its conclusion, the court noted that its decision was limited to the facts found. If either of the first two interactions between the trooper and defendant had, in fact, amounted to a detention or seizure for the traffic violation and had that traffic offense investigation reached a conclusion, it would be more arguable that the third approach with little additional information other than defendant's prior drug-related offense record would not have justified another seizure. The court concluded, however, that those facts were not present here. The court thus denied defendant's motion. Defendant entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal the trial court's order denying his motion to suppress. This appeal followed.

¶ 11. On appeal, defendant argues, as he did below, that his second encounter with...

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9 cases
  • Zullo v. State
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 4 Enero 2019 a seizure subject to Article 11 protection from governmental invasions of privacy. State v. Winters, 2015 VT 116, ¶ 13, 200 Vt. 296, 131 A.3d 186. ¶ 58. Although seizures normally require that a law enforcement officer have probable cause to believe that the person being seized has engag......
  • State v. Tetreault, 16–258
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 22 Diciembre 2017
    ...permissible for the trooper to extend the stop to investigate this suspicion. See State v. Winters, 2015 VT 116, ¶ 14, 200 Vt. 296, 131 A.3d 186 ("If, during the course of an investigative stop, an officer gathers additional information providing reasonable suspicion that some other crimina......
  • State v. Nagel
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 20 Marzo 2020
    ...invalid." Alexander, 2016 VT 19, ¶ 31, 201 Vt. 329, 139 A.3d 574 (quotation omitted); see also State v. Winters, 2015 VT 116, ¶ 27, 200 Vt. 296, 131 A.3d 186 (holding that "[b]ecause defendant was illegally seized, his subsequent ‘consents’ to the search of his person and car, which occurre......
  • State v. Alexander
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • 12 Febrero 2016
    ...stop, and thus required additional reasonable suspicion to support the extended seizure. See State v. Winters, 2015 VT 116, ¶ 14, ––– Vt. ––––, 131 A.3d 186 (“If, during the course of an investigative stop, an officer gathers additional information providing reasonable suspicion that some o......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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