U.S. v. Martin

Decision Date28 June 2005
Docket NumberNo. 04-2711.,04-2711.
Citation411 F.3d 998
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Appellee, v. Dale Joseph MARTIN, Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

Gary George Colbath, argued, Asst. Federal Public Defender, Rapid City, SD (Monica D. Thomas, Asst. Federal Public Defender, on the brief), for appellant.

Thomas J. Wright, argued, Asst. U.S. Atty., Sioux Falls, SD (Jonathan A. Kobes, Asst. U.S. Atty., on the brief), for appellee.

Before WOLLMAN, LAY, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.

COLLOTON, Circuit Judge.

Dale Joseph Martin entered a conditional plea of guilty to a charge of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(D). The district court1 sentenced Martin to six months' imprisonment to be followed by two years of supervised release. Martin appealed the denial of his motion to suppress. We affirm.


On August 3, 2003, Oglala Sioux Tribal Department of Public Safety Officer Keith Grube and United States Bureau of Indian Affairs Police Officer Steven Knispel were conducting traffic patrol in Pine Ridge. Grube observed that the right brake light on a red Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by Martin did not illuminate when the car approached a stop sign. Knispel later testified that he thought that both brake lights were out. Based on his observation of the unilluminated right brake light, Grube directed the car to stop and approached the driver.

Grube then asked for Martin's driver's license. Martin appeared to be nervous and started to shake. Grube asked Martin to step out of the vehicle and gave him a citation for driving without a license. After completing the citation, Grube asked Martin if he had anything in the vehicle that Grube should know about. Martin became more nervous, and Grube asked for permission to search the vehicle. Martin responded "no" in a slurred voice and appeared very nervous.

At that point, Grube retrieved a drug dog from his patrol car. Martin became more agitated, put his hands on his head, and walked across the street. The dog sniffed around Martin's vehicle and alerted at both the left front door seam and the driver's side rear quarter panel. The district court found that the time between Grube's delivery of the citation to Martin and the drug dog's alert was about two minutes.

During this period, Martin approached Officer Knispel, and Knispel asked whether there was something in the vehicle that police should know about. Martin answered "yes," Knispel shrugged his shoulders, and Martin said "marijuana." When Knispel asked how much, Martin said one pound. Knispel then handcuffed Martin and took him into custody. After the dog alerted, officers searched the vehicle and found an open bag with marijuana, some cash, and a small scale.

Martin moved to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the stop. After the district court denied the motion, Martin entered a conditional plea of guilty to an indictment charging possession with intent to distribute marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(D). The district court granted Martin's motion for downward departure from the otherwise applicable (and then-mandatory) sentencing guideline range, and sentenced him to six months' imprisonment.


Martin first argues that the traffic stop was not reasonable. A traffic stop generally must be supported by "at least a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity has occurred or is occurring," and "a traffic violation — however minorcreates probable cause to stop the driver of a vehicle." United States v. Fuse, 391 F.3d 924, 927 (8th Cir.2004) (quotations omitted). Martin argues that his operation of a vehicle with one non-functioning brake light did not violate the Tribe's Motor Vehicle Code, and that because his conduct was entirely lawful, Grube did not have reasonable suspicion to make the traffic stop.

Section 621 of the Tribe's Motor Vehicle Code, discussing unsafe vehicles, reads in pertinent part:

It shall be unlawful for any person to drive or cause to knowingly permit to be driven on any public road any motor vehicle which is in such unsafe condition so as to endanger any person or is not at all times equipped with the following:


(3) STOP LIGHTS: All motor vehicles shall be equipped with a stop light in good working order at all times. Such stop lights to be automatically controlled by brake adjustment.

Martin asserts that because the Code requires only that his vehicle be "equipped with a stop light in good working order," and because the district court never found that both of his brake lights were non-functioning (the court said his vehicle had "either one or two defective tail lights"), Grube had no basis to stop Martin for violating the Motor Vehicle Code.

The determinative question is not whether Martin actually violated the Motor Vehicle Code by operating a vehicle with one defective brake light, but whether an objectively reasonable police officer could have formed a reasonable suspicion that Martin was committing a code violation. Even if Grube were mistaken about the existence of a violation, "the validity of a stop depends on whether the officer's actions were objectively reasonable in the circumstances, and in mistake cases the question is simply whether the mistake, whether of law or fact, was an objectively reasonable one." United States v. Smart, 393 F.3d 767, 770 (8th Cir.2005). There is no basis to question the district court's finding that Grube believed in good faith that Martin was operating a vehicle in violation of the Code. But his subjective good faith is not sufficient to justify the stop, for officers have an obligation to understand the laws that they are entrusted with enforcing, at least to a level that is objectively reasonable. Any mistake of law that results in a search or seizure, therefore, must be objectively reasonable to avoid running afoul of the Fourth Amendment.

The record is not well-developed on the question of objective reasonableness. Grube testified that despite the unusual text of the Tribe's Motor Vehicle Code, it was "common knowledge" that the law requires two functioning brake lights. There was no evidence, however, concerning the drafting history of the Code, prior enforcement of the Code's provision concerning "stop lights," the training of police concerning the requirements of the Code, or previous judicial interpretations of the "stop lights" provision. We are left, therefore, to wrestle with Grube's cursory assertion concerning "common knowledge," and the plain language of the Code.

Although the paucity of evidence presented makes this a close case, we ultimately conclude that Grube's action was not objectively unreasonable. We "should not expect state highway patrolmen to interpret the traffic laws with the subtlety and expertise of a criminal defense attorney." United States v. Sanders, 196 F.3d 910, 913 (8th Cir.1999). While an expert defense attorney, and even a federal judge, ultimately might conclude that the plain language of the Code technically requires only that a vehicle have one "stop light" in working order, we think it is fair to say that the Code is counterintuitive and confusing.

The requirement common to States in the region is that all brake lights on a vehicle like Martin's must be in good working order, see Iowa Code § 321.387 (1997); Minn.Stat. § 169.57 (2001); Neb.Rev.Stat. § 60-6,226 (2003); N.D. Cent.Code § 39-21-06 (2003); S.D. Codified Laws § 32-17-8.1 (2004); Wyo. Stat. § 31-5-913 (2004), and the record is silent as to...

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