Aaron C. Aguilar v. The State of Texas--Appeal from County Court at Law No 9 of Bexar County

Annotate this Case
MEMORANDUM OPINION
No. 04-07-00537-CR
Aaron C. AGUILAR,
Appellant
v.
The STATE of Texas,
Appellee
From the County Court at Law No. 9, Bexar County, Texas
Trial Court No. 996010
Honorable Laura Salinas, Judge Presiding

Opinion by: Catherine Stone, Justice

 

Sitting: Catherine Stone, Justice

Sandee Bryan Marion, Justice

Rebecca Simmons, Justice

 

Delivered and Filed: March 12, 2008

 

AFFIRMED

Following the denial of his motion to suppress the evidence seized at his arrest, appellant Aaron C. Aguilar pled no contest to the offense of possession of less than two ounces of marijuana. Aguilar was sentenced to six months deferred adjudication and assessed a fine of $250.00. He appeals the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress and challenges constitutionality of the statute he was stopped for violating, which prohibits mufflers that make "excessive or unusual noise." Aguilar contends (1) the muffler statute is unconstitutionally void for vagueness, and (2) even if the statute is constitutional, the State did not present sufficient evidence to support a finding that his vehicle violated the statute. We affirm.

Factual and Procedural Background

Aguilar filed a motion to suppress in the trial court, alleging that evidence of the marijuana seized when his vehicle was stopped by police should be suppressed because the officers seized the evidence without a warrant, probable cause, or lawful authority, in violation of his rights under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments under the United States Constitution; and under Article I, Section 9 of the Texas Constitution, and Article 38.23 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

At a hearing on the motion to suppress, San Antonio Police Officers Reyes Martinez and Tracy Williams testified they were on patrol near Medical Drive in Bexar County, on January 12, 2007. Officer Martinez was in an unmarked vehicle, and Officer Williams was in a patrol car. According to their testimony, both officers noticed Aguilar's vehicle because of excessive noise from his exhaust. Officer Martinez said Aguilar's vehicle was "very loud. I had my windows up. So that's when I signaled Officer Williams [to make a traffic stop]. . . ." Officer Williams testified that she could hear Aguilar's vehicle through rolled up windows and over the sound of the police radio.

Officer Williams initiated the stop, and was assisted by Officer Martinez. When Williams approached the driver's side window, Aguilar was smoking a cigarette and acting nervous. Williams asked him to put his cigarette out and believed Aguilar acted like he was looking for something in the car as he put his cigarette out. Williams asked Aguilar to get out of the car, and as he stood up, Williams saw what she recognized as a bag of marijuana on the driver's seat. Officer Williams handcuffed Aguilar, verified that the bag on the seat contained marijuana, and then arrested Aguilar for possession of the marijuana.

Discussion

In his sole issue on appeal, Aguilar argues it was error to deny his motion to suppress. Aguilar's argument presents two points: (1) whether Section 547.604(a) of the Texas Transportation Code which requires that "[a] motor vehicle shall be equipped with a muffler in good working condition that continually operates to prevent excessive or unusual noise," is unconstitutionally void for vagueness because it does not provide an objective standard for what constitutes excessive or unusual noise; and (2) even if the statute is valid, whether the evidence is insufficient to show there was reasonable suspicion that Aguilar's muffler violated the statute.

Standard of Review

In an appeal of a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, an appellate court applies a bifurcated standard of review, giving almost total deference to a trial court's determination of historical facts and reviewing de novo the court's application of the law. Maxwell v. State, 73 S.W.3d 278, 281 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002); Carmouche v. State, 10 S.W.3d 323, 327 (Tex. Crim. App. 2000). In doing so, we afford almost total deference to a trial court's determination of historical facts supported by the record, especially when the findings are based on an evaluation of credibility and demeanor of the witnesses. Estrada v. State, 154 S.W.3d 604, 607 (Tex. Crim. App. 2005). We review the record to determine whether the trial judge's ruling is supported by the record and correct under some theory of law applicable to the case. Armendariz v. State, 123 S.W.3d 401, 404 (Tex. Crim. App. 2003). Absent an abuse of discretion by the trial court, we will uphold the trial court's decision. Maddox v. State, 682 S.W.2d 563, 564 (Tex. Crim. App. 1985).

Constitutionality of the Statute

When reviewing an attack upon the constitutionality of a statute, we begin with the presumption that the statute is valid and the legislature has not acted unreasonably or arbitrarily. Luquis v. State, 72 S.W.3d 355, 365 n.26 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002); Ex parte Ports, 21 S.W.3d 444, 446 (Tex. App.--San Antonio 2000, pet. ref'd). The party challenging the constitutionality of a statute bears the burden of establishing that it is unconstitutional. Ports, 21 S.W.3d at 446. It is a basic principle of due process that a statute is void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined. See Papachristou v. City of Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 165 (1972); State v. Holcombe, 187 S.W.3d 496, 499 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006), cert. denied, 127 S. Ct. 176 (2006). Due process requires criminal laws to be defined so that (1) fair notice is given to ordinary persons as to what conduct is forbidden; and (2) definite standards are established to prevent arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement by police, judges, and juries. Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108 (1972); Holcombe, 187 S.W.3d at 499.

Aguilar contends that Section 547.604(a) of the Texas Transportation Code is unconstitutionally vague because defining the prohibited level of noise as "excessive" or "unusual" does not give him adequate notice of whether his conduct is legal and it gives police discretion to arbitrarily enforce the statute. "However, a statute is not unconstitutionally vague merely because the words or terms used are not specifically defined." Engelking v. State, 750 S.W.2d 213, 215 (Tex. Crim. App. 1988). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals previously upheld the validity of the predecessor statute to Section 547.604(a) and rejected a claim that the statute was void for indefiniteness because of the "excessive and unusual noise" language. Ex Parte Trafton, 160 Tex. Crim. 407, 271 S.W.2d 814 (1953). The court rejected the void for vagueness challenge because it determined that a person could know what level of noise is unusual or excessive for a muffler. (1)

Aguilar argues the Trafton decision predates substantial changes in void for vagueness jurisprudence under federal constitutional law. However, recent cases from other jurisdictions apply similar reasoning to the Trafton decision to uphold the validity of muffler statutes prohibiting "excessive and unusual noise." (2)

A recent decision of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the validity of a different noise statute in a void for vagueness challenge. See Holcombe at 187 S.W.3d at 499. In Holcombe, the defendant filed a motion to suppress after he was charged with driving while intoxicated, arguing the noise ordinance relied upon for his traffic stop was void for vagueness. The statute prohibited playing music "in such a manner as to . . . unreasonably disturb or interfere with the peace . . . of neighboring persons of ordinary sensibilities." Id. at 497. The Holcombe court noted that "we cannot demand mathematical certainty" from the words in statutes, and given their plain meaning the terms "unreasonable disturbance" and "noise" do create an objective standard by which persons of ordinary intelligence know when a particular noise is too loud. Id. at 500.

Applying this analysis to the muffler statute, we believe the terms "excessive" and "unusual" noise, although not explicitly based on a reasonable person objective standard, are terms that imply that noise must be outside normal standards for motor vehicles, which ordinary persons can objectively determine. The statute does not present a standard that depends solely on what an enforcement officer finds annoying, irritating, or unsatisfactory. Cf. Howard v. State, 617 S.W.2d 191, 192 (Tex. Crim. App. 1979) (finding a loitering statute void for vagueness because it depends on subjective determinations of a police officer to decide "suspicious circumstances" and "a satisfactory explanation"). In light of the recent Holcombe opinion, we see no reason to come to a different conclusion than the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals came to in Trafton. Therefore, we overrule Aguilar's constitutional challenge to the statute.

The Arrest

Having concluded Section 547.604(a) of the Texas Transportation Code is not unconstitutionally void for vagueness, we must resolve Aguilar's contention that the evidence was insufficient to show there was reasonable suspicion he violated the statute. Both the United States Constitution and the Texas Constitution prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV; Tex. Const. art. I, 9. When a police officer stops a defendant without a warrant and without the defendant's consent, the State has the burden at a suppression hearing of proving the reasonableness of the stop. Ford v. State, 158 S.W.3d 488, 492 (Tex. Crim. App. 2005). An officer conducts a lawful temporary detention when he has reasonable suspicion to believe that an individual is violating the law. Id. In certain circumstances, however, arrests may be legally procured without a warrant. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 14.01(b) (Vernon 2005) (providing that "[a] peace officer may arrest an offender without a warrant for any offense committed in his presence or within his view"). The State does not have to show that the law has actually been violated, but only that the officer had a reasonable basis for believing the defendant has committed, or is in the process of committing an offense. See Garcia v. State, 43 S.W.3d 527, 530 (Tex. Crim. App. 2001). A reasonable-suspicion determination is made by considering the totality of the circumstances. Ford, 158 S.W.3d at 492-93.

Aguilar argues there was insufficient evidence that the officers had a reasonable suspicion to stop him for a violation of Section 547.604(a) of the Texas Transportation Code. He contends the officers' ability to hear his vehicle with their windows rolled up was the only evidence to support the stop. Aguilar claims that buses, garbage trucks, tractor trailers, and commuter vehicles can be heard through rolled-up windows; and that in the absence of evidence of a particular decibel level, unusual backfiring, gunning of the engine, or distance between the officers' vehicles and his vehicle, there was no objective evidence presented to show Aguilar was in violation of the statute.

The State responds that both officers testified they first noticed Aguilar's vehicle because of the excessive noise from his exhaust. Additionally, both said the windows of their vehicles were rolled up at the time they heard Aguilar's exhaust, and Officer Williams could hear the exhaust over the sound of her police radio. Each officer testified that in their opinion the noise from Aguilar's exhaust was excessive and unusual, and that they initiated the stop because they believed his exhaust violated the Transportation Code. The State contends that under the totality of the circumstances, Officer Williams had reasonable suspicion to believe that she had observed Aguilar in violation of Section 547.604(a) of the Transportation Code, and therefore she had authority to stop his vehicle.

In reviewing a trial court's factual determinations in a suppression hearing, we give almost total deference to the trial judge as the trier of fact to determine the credibility of witnesses based on their demeanor as they present the evidence. See Estrada, 154 S.W.3d at 607. The evidence elicited by the State at the hearing on the motion to suppress provided sufficient evidence for the trial court to determine that Officer Williams had probable cause to believe the noise from Aguilar's muffler violated the law. The trial court heard Officer Williams's testimony and decided in light of all the evidence presented that it was credible that she reasonably believed that when she pulled him over, Aguilar was violating the Transportation Code. We defer to the finding of the trial court. Accordingly, we overrule Aguilar's first issue.

The judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

Catherine Stone, Justice

 

Do Not Publish

 

1. Aguilar argues that Trafton is distinguishable because it addressed the issue of a defective muffler and not whether the noise from the muffler was excessive enough to give reasonable suspicion for the stop. Although Trafton presented a different factual situation, it was decided on the grounds that a person could know that the noise coming from the muffler was unusual or excessive.

2. See U.S. v. Ross, 400 F. Supp. 2d 939, 944 (W.D. Tex. 2005) (denying a motion to suppress the evidence pursuant to a stop for a sputtering muffler under Tex. Transp. Code Ann. 547.604 (Vernon 1999)); St. Louis County v. McClune, 762 S.W.2d 91, 92 (Mo. Ct. App. 1988) (upholding a void for vagueness challenge to a similar Missouri statute with the same standard which "is sufficient to inform a person of ordinary intelligence the nature of the act prohibited . . . . [is] an unreasonable deviation from the level of noise normally produced from the average automobile").