County Criminal Court:  CRIMINAL LAW Ė Traffic Stop Ė Officer had probable cause to conduct a traffic stop on Appellant.Trial court properly denied Appellantís motion to suppress.  Trial court affirmed.   Hall v. State, No. 11-CF-000947-WS (Fla. 6th Cir. App. Ct. July 23, 2012).

NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES FOR REHEARING AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

 

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE SIXTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT

OF THE STATE OF FLORIDA, IN AND FOR PASCO COUNTY

APPELLATE DIVISION

 

JORDAN HALL,†††††

††††††††††††††††††††††† Appellant,

 

v. ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† UCN:††††††††††† 512012CF000947WS

Case No:†† ††† 2011-CF-000947-WS

 

STATE OF FLORIDA,†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

††††††††††††††††††††††† Appellee.††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††

____________________________/

 

On Appeal from County Court,

Judge Debra Roberts

 

Thomas Matthew McLaughlin, Esq.

for Appellant

 

Patrick Moore, A.S.A.

for Appellee

 

 

 

 

ORDER AND OPINION

 

††††††††††† Appellant argues that the trial court improperly denied his motion to suppress.Specifically, Appellant contends that the officer lacked probable cause to conduct a traffic stop on Appellant.This court concludes that the trial courtís factual findings are supported by competent, substantial evidence.Therefore, this court affirms the trial courtís order as set forth below.

 

 

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

††††††††††† Appellant was charged with driving while license suspended or revoked on September 22, 2011.Appellant filed a motion to suppress arguing that law enforcement did not witness a traffic infraction or did not otherwise have any reasonable suspicion or probable cause to make a stop.At the hearing on the motion to suppress, on January 13, 2011, the following was presented:

††††††††††† Officer Cory Michael Ray with the New Port Richey Police Department testified that on August 18, 2011 he was working undercover with Sergeant Eric Jay in the street crimes unit.They were in a Sweetbay parking lot when they observed what looked to be a drug deal.Appellant went from his vehicle to another vehicle, where Appellant stayed for a short time before returning to his own vehicle and leaving.At Montana Avenue and Vanburen Street, Appellant was driving a white Honda Civic.Officer Ray noticed that Appellantís brake light was out and initiated a traffic stop.When only one brake light is working, was the situation in this case, Officer Ray generally stops individuals for having unsafe equipment.After performing an FCIC/NCIC check on Appellant, he discovered multiple suspensions, completed a search of the vehicle, and pulled another case in reference to that.

††††††††††† On cross-examination, Officer Ray clarified that Sergeant Jay was driving their vehicle.They were about fifty to hundred feet away from the other cars in the Sweetbay parking lot.The other vehicle was a Grand Marquis or Crown Victoria.Officer Ray did not actually see any drugs passed, but it was suspicious.Based on the potential drug deal, Officer Ray and Sergeant Jay followed Appellant.They were looking for a reason within the law to stop Appellant so they could execute a search.If they could not find probable cause to stop the vehicle, then they would not have.Officer Ray noticed that one of the two brake lights on the side was out, but was uncertain whether Appellantís car had a third brake light in the middle and whether it worked.

††††††††††† On redirect, Officer Ray testified that they were twenty to thirty feet directly behind Appellantís vehicle with a clear view.He only saw one working brake light.Appellantís vehicle was stopped because only one taillight was working, which is considered unsafe equipment.When Officer Ray observes a vehicle with only one brake light, he frequently initiates a traffic stop.The traffic stop led into the drug investigation.†††††

On recross-examination, Officer Ray furthered that he has stopped a lot of people for unsafe equipment, including brake lights that are out, and given a lot of verbal warnings.He does not have the manpower to stop every car with only one light.

††††††††††† Teresa Brugger testified next for the State.She owns the Honda Civic, which she purchased for her husband and son to use.Ms. Brugger did not give permission to anyone to drive the vehicle on August 18, 2011, but Appellant drove it that day.She never drives the vehicle, and to the best of her knowledge it was operating fine.Ms. Brugger could not recall seeing the vehicle that day around 6 p.m.

††††††††††† On cross-examination, Ms. Brugger testified that she last saw the vehicle parked at her home on August 18, 2011.After that day, the vehicle was impounded and she had to go to the impound lot to pick it up.Ms. Brugger did not have to make any repairs on the vehicle.

††††††††††† On redirect, Ms. Brugger admitted that she did not check to see if the brake lights were working when she picked up the vehicle.

 

††††††††††† After hearing arguments from Appellant and the State, the trial court stated:

Based on the testimony that's been presented here today, there is no indication, no true testimony there was a third light on the back of this car.No pictures.Nobody testified about it.So the only testimony you have about the lights is what the officer testified to.The officer testified he had a suspicion there may have been a drug buy going; however, the officer still has a right to stop if there is a really -- if there is a legal reason to stop them.Even with that suspicion, if they have probable cause to believe a traffic infraction was presented, they can stop them.

 

In this case, there was evidence of a broken taillight.I don't have any other testimony.The owner at the time said she didn't drive the car.She didn't look at the brake light to see if it was working on the day of this incident.So she doesn't know if the brake lights were out on that day.The only testimony we have is the testimony of the officer, which I take as credible.So I am going to deny your Motion to Suppress.

 

Judge Roberts subsequently entered a written order denying Appellantís motion to suppress.Prior to sentencing, Judge Roberts found that the motion was dispositive.Appellant pleaded no contest and was sentenced on January 30, 2012 to ninety daysóthirty days straight time followed by sixty days Operation Payback.Appellant reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal the same day he was sentenced.

††††††

††††††

 

LAW AND ANALYSIS

A trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress presents a mixed question of law and fact.Butler v. State, 706 So. 2d 100 (Fla. 1st DCA 1998).Deference is given to the trial court's factual findings if they are supported by competent and substantial evidence.Cillo v. State, 849 So. 2d 353, 354 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003).The trial courtís ruling is presumptively correct and will be upheld if supported by the record.Cuervo v. State, 967 So. 2d 155, 160 (Fla. 2007); State v. Shuttleworth, 927 So. 2d 975, 978 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006).However, the trial court's application of the law to the facts is reviewed under the de novo standard.Williams v. State, 769 So. 2d 404, 406 (Fla. 2d DCA 2000).

Appellant argues that the trial court erred when it denied his motion to suppress.On appeal, Appellant contends that he did not commit a traffic infraction because the vehicle should have been equipped with a third, rear-mounted brake light, which would mean that if one brake light was inoperable, then two brake lights would have been working.Upon review of the record, Officer Ray testified at the suppression hearing that he stopped Appellant because only one of the brake lights was functioning on Appellantís vehicle.This testimony was not rebutted, and the trial court found Officer Rayís testimony credible.This court finds that the trial courtís factual findings are supported by competent, substantial evidence.

The lower courtís ruling was a determination of facts and cannot be reviewed de novo.Although Appellant is asking this court to consider the lower courtís ruling de novo as to the lower courtís application of the law, Appellant is truly only arguing the factual findings.Appellant is not alleging that the trial courtís application of the law is incorrect; rather, Appellant suggests that there is a question as to whether there was more than one brake light functioning during the time of the stop.This court must give deference to the trial court's factual findings when they are supported by competent and substantial evidence and uphold the trial courtís ruling.

On appeal, Appellant also challenges Officer Rayís interpretation of the law.Generally, a traffic stop is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment where law enforcement has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation occurred; an officerís subjective intentions play no role in the Fourth Amendment analysis.Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996).The question is only where probable cause existed.Holland v. State, 696 So. 2d 757 (Fla. 1997).Thus, the issue in this case is whether the officer had probable cause to believe that only one brake light was functioning, not whether there possibly was another brake light that was mounted on the vehicle or even whether another brake light was actually functioning.

Even if an officer makes a traffic stop based on an officerís incorrect, but reasonable assessment of the facts, it does not violate the Fourth Amendment.Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 205 (2001).Great deference is given to the judgment of trained law enforcement officers on the scene.Id. at 205-6.At the suppression hearing, there was no evidence or testimony regarding whether a third brake light actually existed on the more than ten year old vehicle.Likewise, the testimony is clear that Officer Ray observed only one functioning brake light.Officer Ray unequivocally stated he could only see one functioning brake light.Therefore, it was correctly determined that it was reasonable for Officer Ray to conclude that there was probable cause that a traffic violation occurred.

There was a factual determination by the trial court that Appellantís vehicle only had one working brake light; thus, probable cause that a traffic violation occurred did exist and the stop itself did not violate Appellantís Fourth Amendment rights.There was no testimony presented alleging more than one brake light was functioning on Appellantís vehicle at the time of the stop.The trial court found that the stop was valid based on all of the testimony and facts presented, rendering its denial of Appellantís motion to suppress proper.

It is therefore,

 

††††††††††† ORDERED that the trial courtís order denying Appellantís motion to suppress is hereby AFFRIMED.

 

DONE AND ORDERED in Chambers, at New Port Richey, Pasco County, Florida this 23rd day of July 2012.

 

Original order entered on July 23, 2012 by Circuit Judges W. Lowell Bray, Jr., Michael F. Andrews, and Daniel D. Diskey.

 

 

 

 

 

Copies to:

Thomas Matthew McLaughlin, Esq.

Patrick Moore, A.S.A.