State of Utah v. Bracero

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State v. Bracero, et al. Filed December 2, 1999 IN THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS


State of Utah,
Plaintiff and Appellant,


Samuel Bracero and Arturo Ruiz,
Defendants and Appellees.

(Not For Official Publication)

Case No. 981529-CA

December 2, 1999
  1999 UT App 351 -----

Fourth District, Nephi Department
The Honorable Anthony W. Schofield

Jan Graham and Marian Decker, Salt Lake City, for Appellant
Jere Reneer, Spanish Fork, for Appellee Bracero
Alan Dayton, Salt Lake City, for Appellee Ruiz


Before Judges Wilkins, Billings, and Davis.

WILKINS, Presiding Judge:

The State appeals the trial court's order of dismissal based on defendants Samuel Bracero and Arturo Ruiz's successful motion to suppress for lack of reasonable suspicion. The trial court upheld the validity of the initial stop, but concluded that the subsequent detention of defendants exceeded the scope of the stop and was therefore illegal. We affirm.

In reviewing a challenge to a trial court's suppression ruling, we will not reverse the factual findings underlying that ruling unless they are clearly erroneous. See State v. James, 858 P.2d 1012, 1014 (Utah Ct. App. 1993). However, "whether a specific set of facts gives rise to reasonable suspicion is a determination of law and is reviewable nondeferentially for correctness . . . [with] a measure of discretion [given] to the trial judge when applying that standard to a given set of facts." State v. Pena, 869 P.2d 932, 939 (Utah 1994).

In determining whether a search is constitutionally reasonable, we examine whether: (1) the trooper's action was justified at its inception; and (2) whether the resulting detention was reasonably related to the circumstances justifying the initial stop. See State v. Lopez, 873 P.2d 1127, 1131-32 (Utah 1994). Once the investigation based on the initial stop of the vehicle has been completed, the occupants must be allowed to proceed on their way. See State v. Robinson, 797 P.2d 431, 435 (Utah Ct. App. 1990). "Any further temporary detention for investigative questioning after the fulfillment for the purpose of the initial traffic stop is [un]justified . . . [unless] the detaining officer has a reasonable suspicion of serious criminal activity." Id. Defendants concede the trooper was justified in making the initial stop because he observed defendants' car speeding. Therefore, we focus on whether the officer had a reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity justifying further detention of the defendants.

In this case, the trial court specifically found the "only facts . . . actually observable by . . . [the trooper] at the time he made his decision to [further] detain the vehicle and which support the decision are the smell of air freshener and the fact that neither occupant was the registered owner of the car." The State does not dispute these factual findings, and therefore, we accept them as true. See C & Y Corp. v. General Biometrics, Inc., 896 P.2d 47, 52 (Utah Ct. App. 1995) ("Because appellants do not challenge the trial court's factual findings, we must accept this finding as true.").

Although the smell of air freshener alone cannot provide a reasonable suspicion that drugs are present, see United States v. Alvarez, 68 F.3d 1242, 1245 (10th Cir. 1995) (McKay, J., concurring) ("Standing alone, air freshener is not sufficient to justify a reasonable search for drugs."), air freshener coupled with other suspicious circumstances may support further reasonable inquiry. See id. However, the additional circumstance in this case, namely, the fact that neither occupant was the registered owner of the car, is not a sufficient indication of criminal activity. This fact is just as consistent with the innocent explanation that the driver borrowed the car from its rightful owner. See State v. Johnson, 805 P.2d 761, 764 (Utah 1991) (stating "while the lack of a registration certificate and the fact that the occupants did not own the car raised the possibility that the car might be stolen, this information, without more, does not rise to the level of an articulable suspicion that the car was stolen"). Absent more, there was no articulable suspicion that the car had been stolen or that defendants were transporting drugs. Because the smell of air freshener coupled with the fact that neither defendant was the registered owner of the car was insufficient to justify extension of the stop, such detention was unreasonable. Accordingly, we affirm the trial court's suppression ruling. We do not address the State's remaining arguments because of our holding concerning lack of reasonable articulable suspicion.


Michael J. Wilkins,
Presiding Judge



Judith M. Billings, Judge

James Z. Davis, Judge