Appellate Court Must Defer to Trial Court’s Findings of Fact, According to Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

A court of appeals improperly substituted its own findings of fact for the trial court’s findings when it reversed an order granting a motion to suppress. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the appellate judgment and reinstated the trial court’s order. Texas v. Duran, No. PD-0771-12. slip op. (Tex. Crim. App., Apr. 17, 2013). The court held that a single factual issue determined the outcome of the case, and that the appellate court was obligated to defer to the trial court on fact issues.

An officer with the El Paso police department was responding to a dispatch call at about 2:35 a.m., without his emergency lights or siren activated, when a vehicle driven by the defendant made a left turn in front of him. The officer, who was exceeding the speed limit, was reportedly forced to brake abruptly, and then made a right turn from the far left lane to follow the defendant’s vehicle. Before completing the turn, the officer claimed, he saw the tire of the defendant’s vehicle cross the center yellow line of the street. The officer pulled the defendant over and arrested him for driving while intoxicated.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop his vehicle. At the suppression hearing, the officer claimed that he believed the defendant failed to yield the right-of-way by turning left in front of him and forcing him to slam on his brakes. This made the officer decide to follow the defendant, and he testified that he witnessed the defendant cross the yellow line. On cross-examination, the officer testified that he decided to pull the defendant over when he turned left in front of him, and again when he saw the center-line violation. A former police commander called by the defense testified that, although a vehicle turning left usually must yield the right-of-way to oncoming traffic, this is not the case if an oncoming vehicle is speeding.

The trial court granted the motion to suppress, finding that it was “totally beyond all credibility” that an officer responding to a dispatch call would abruptly turn right to follow a driver to see if he might commit a crime. Slip op. at 4-5. It therefore found that the officer’s decision to pull the defendant over was solely based on the left turn, which was not a crime, and that it is unlikely the officer even saw the defendant cross the yellow line. The court of appeals made its own findings of fact and reversed the trial court, accepting the State’s argument that the yellow-line violation gave the officer reasonable suspicion for a stop.

The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the appellate court, noting that an objective standard of reasonableness applies in determining whether an officer had reasonable suspicion for a stop. Id. at 8; Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968); Martinez v. Texas, 348 S.W.3d 919, 923 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011). A court must “place [itself] in the shoes of the officer at the time of the inception of the stop,” without reliance on information obtained by the officer later. Duran, slip op. at 6-7. The court held that the case depended exclusively on the factual question of whether the officer saw the defendant’s vehicle cross the center stripe, and that only the trial judge was in the position to assess the officer’s credibility. Id. at 15. The trial judge concluded that the evidence did not support the officer’s claim that he witnessed the vehicle cross the center stripe, and the appellate court was obligated to defer to that finding.

The criminal justice system provides protections for criminal defendants by requiring that police, prosecutors, and courts respect individuals’ constitutional rights. Board-certified criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has worked as an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor, and he has spent more than twenty years fighting for the rights of west Texas defendants in criminal cases. To schedule a confidential consultation regarding your legal matter, contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157.

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