Officer Testimony Trumps Video Evidence, Court Holds, in Establishing Probable Cause for Traffic Stop

2004-02-25_Night_traffic_stop_in_Durham_1.jpgThe Indiana Supreme Court affirmed a trial court’s denial of a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence obtained in a traffic stop based on video evidence that seemed to contradict the arresting officer’s testimony. An appellate court had reversed the defendant’s DUI conviction, finding that the traffic stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion. Robinson v. Indiana (Robinson I), 985 N.E.2d 1141, 1143 (Ind. App. 2013). The state supreme court, however, ruled that the standard of review did not permit “invad[ing] the fact-finder’s province.” Robinson v. Indiana (Robinson II), No. 20S04-1307-CR-471, slip op. at 2 (Ind., Mar. 25, 2014).

At about 1:00 a.m. on October 15, 2011, a sheriff’s deputy pulled the defendant over after allegedly observing her vehicle veer off the right side of the road twice. His vehicle camera recorded the stop. The defendant reportedly admitted to drinking one beer. She failed three field sobriety tests, and a chemical test conducted at the jail indicated blood alcohol content of 0.09 percent, just above the legal limit.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with driving under the influence and other offenses. The defendant moved to suppress all of the state’s evidence, arguing that the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion to pull her over. See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968); Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690 (1996). The trial court denied the motion after considering the deputy’s testimony, the vehicle camera footage, and the blood and breath test evidence. Even though the court stated that it could not say for certain, based on the video, whether the defendant’s car ever left the road, it held that the deputy’s visual observations were enough to establish reasonable suspicion for a stop. It cited a case in which Indiana’s appellate court found that an officer had reasonable suspicion when a defendant drove off the road twice. Indiana v. McCaa, 963 N.E.2d 24 (Ind. App. 2012).

The state Court of Appeals reversed the verdict. It reviewed the case for abuse of discretion, noting that it cannot reweigh the evidence and must view “conflicting evidence in favor of the trial court’s ruling.” Robinson I at 1144, quoting Lindsey v. Indiana, 916 N.E.2d 230, 238 (Ind. App. 2009). It must also, however, “consider the uncontested evidence favorable to the defendant,” and the final determination of reasonable suspicion is reviewed de novo. Id. The court distinguished the case from McCaa, noting that while McCaa did not involve any doubt about whether the defendant’s car left the road, the Robinson trial court was not so certain.

Somewhat unlike the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court defined the standard of review for the denial of a motion to suppress as one of deference to the trial court on fact issues “unless they are clearly erroneous.” Robinson II, slip op. at 4. De novo review, it held, is reserved for constitutional questions regarding a search or seizure. The court held that the appellate court should not have overturned the trial court’s findings of fact.

Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of west Texas defendants for over twenty years. He draws on his experience as an FBI agent and a prosecutor to assist clients charged with alleged state and federal offenses related to drugs, white collar crime, and other matters. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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Photo credit: By Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.