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Dissent worries ruling widens door for pretextual stops
On a bitterly cold night in Clay County, along the North Dakota border, Larry Dale Taylor was pulled over for having no license plate in the front of his truck and a plate covered with snow in the back.
The deputy sheriff checked on the car’s registration and confirmed that it was expired. The driver’s license had been canceled as inimical to public safety. Driving under those circumstances is a gross misdemeanor.
There was an open case of beer with missing cans in the back.
The course of events led to a broadened search and four charges, including a first-degree DWI. After learning that the defendant’s license was canceled, the sheriff asked him if he had been drinking. Taylor said he had drunk two cans, which he later revised to six cans. After the truck was impounded, two empty cans were found near the passenger seat.
Because it was so cold, the deputy decided conduct field sobriety tests at the Clay County Jail. There Taylor was placed under arrest.
Taylor, 51, of Moorhead, filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the sheriff improperly expanded the search by asking him if he had recently consumed alcohol. The District Court judge denied the motion and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
The defendant waived his right to a jury trial, intending to appeal the suppression order. The District Court found him not guilty of first-degree DWI based on driving while under the influence, but convicted him of the other three counts:
- First-degree DWI based on driving with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more as measured within two hours of the time of driving.
- Driving after his license was cancelled as inimical to public safety.
- Having an open bottle in his vehicle.
The District Court judge sentenced Taylor to a stayed, 42-month sentence for first-degree DWI and placed him on probation.
The lower courts and—as of Wednesday, the state Supreme Court—have all upheld the search of the Taylor’s vehicle.
The case is State v. Taylor, decided 5-2 over a vigorous dissent by Justice Paul Thissen, joined in part by Justice G. Barry Anderson.
If the dissent is correct, the case will create “too much space for future pretextual and potentially racially motivated stops and will contribute to Minnesota’s racial disparities in who is stopped and who is searched following a minor traffic stop,” as Thissen asserted. (Anderson did not join in this section of the dissent.)
Facts and inferences
The majority, in an opinion written by Justice Margaret Chutich, confined its analysis to whether the expansion of the scope of the stop, when the sheriff inquired about drinking, was lawful.
To expand the search, the officer needed to have a “reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity,” and may consider rational inferences based on the facts, the court said, citing Terry v. Ohio, the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision that sets a standard for investigative stops. The sufficiency of the reasonable suspicion is based on the totality of the circumstances.
The deputy inferred from the license cancellation that Taylor had prior driving while impaired convictions. He then asked him about drinking but did not ask him why his license was canceled.
The court found the officer’s investigation to be reasonable under Terry.
“Notably, we need not determine whether either the open case of beer with some missing cans in the truck or the canceled license status would be sufficient by itself. We focus only on whether the combination of the objective, particularized facts and any resulting rational inferences warranted a reasonable, articulable suspicion that justified expansion of the stop,” Chutich wrote. (Emphasis by court.)
The deputy testified that, based on his training and experience, licenses are often canceled as inimical to public safety based on multiple DWI convictions. The majority found his conclusion reasonable. The dissent contested that, but the court said:
“The combination of these facts establishes more than an ‘unarticulated hunch’ that Taylor was driving while impaired.”
The court then found that the absence of any outward indicia of intoxication did not outweigh the other factors contributing to the reasonable, articulable suspicion of driving while impaired.
“In sum, we reiterate that the bar for reasonable suspicion is low,” Chutich wrote, upholding the denial of the motion to suppress.
The bar does exist
Dissenting, Thissen wrote that while the court may not set a high bar for reasonable suspicion, “that bar is not nonexistent.”
He noted that under Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution, the scope and duration of a traffic stop investigation must be limited to the justification for the stop. An expansion of the stop must be based on reasonable suspicion of additional illegal activity, said the dissent.
In the dissent’s Section B, joined by Anderson, Thissen noted that when the sheriff determined that the defendant had no driver’s license, he did not ask why but instead asked about drinking. When he asked that question, he had no information about an open container of beer in the car or whether the defendant was driving while impaired.
“[T]he mere fact that a person’s license was revoked as inimical to public safety does not support an inference that the person has prior alcohol-related driving violations,” Thissen said.
The state’s position did not support the “speculative leap,” Thissen wrote.
“Here, the two-question discussion during the suppression hearing concerning the deputy’s experience is not enough to show that the deputy’s experience was sufficient to reasonably support the speculative leap from an inimical to public safety cancellation to a record of driving while impaired,” the dissent said, joined at this point by Anderson.
Even if the deputy had a reasonable basis to infer that Taylor had a record of driving violations, the expansion of the stop was still not justified, the dissent continued.
“The default rule is that police officers should not intrude into the lives and privacy of Minnesotans who are objectively engaged in lawful behavior. The court, however, opens the door for any police officer to do just that to thousands of Minnesotans.”
The dissent continued (without Anderson at this point) to say:
“We cannot ignore the broader impact that our reasonable-suspicion jurisprudence has on police practices that use traffic stops as an excuse to conduct broader investigations, and the disproportionate effect those practices have on black Minnesotans, American Indian Minnesotans, and other communities of color.”
The court noted that the record identified Taylor as white.