State of Utah v. McLean

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State v. McLean. Filed April 8, 1999 IN THE UTAH COURT OF APPEALS


State of Utah,
Plaintiff and Appellee,


James Philip McLean,
Defendant and Appellant.

(Not For Official Publication)

Case No. 971354-CA

April 8, 1999
  1999 UT App 114 -----

Fourth District, Provo Department
The Honorable Ray M. Harding, Jr.

Margaret P. Lindsay, Provo, for Appellant
Jan Graham and Marian Decker, Salt Lake City, for Appellee


Before Judges Wilkins, Greenwood, and Billings.

GREENWOOD, Associate Presiding Judge:

Defendant James Philip McLean was charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance (Methamphetamine), a violation of Utah Code Ann. § 58-37-8(1)(a)(i) (1996 & Supp. 1997). After his motion to suppress evidence was denied, defendant pleaded no contest on the condition he could appeal the trial court's ruling. He now claims the trial court erred by finding that the traffic stop that produced the incriminating evidence was justified and that the scope of the resulting detention was reasonably related to the circumstances surrounding the stop. We affirm.

We "review the factual findings underlying a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress under a clearly erroneous standard," and "consider the facts in a light most favorable to the trial court's determination." State v. Patefield, 927 P.2d 655, 657 (Utah Ct. App. 1996) (citations omitted). "Clear error will be found only when the trial court's factual findings run against the clear weight of the evidence." Id. Nevertheless, we "review the trial court's legal conclusions based on [its factual determinations] 'for correctness according no deference to the trial court's conclusions.'" Id. (quoting State v. Yates, 918 P.2d 136, 138 (Utah Ct. App. 1996)).
     "'Although a person has a lesser expectation of privacy in a car than in his or her home, one does not lose the protection of the Fourth Amendment while in an automobile.'" State v. Lopez, 873 P.2d 1127, 1131 (Utah 1994) (quoting State v. Schlosser, 774 P.2d 1132, 1135 (Utah 1989) (citation omitted)). Accordingly, the Fourth Amendment's ban against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to traffic stops, regardless of how brief the stop or for what reason it is made. See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653, 99 S. Ct. 1391, 1396 (1979).

Only unreasonable searches and seizures, however, receive Fourth Amendment protection, see Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 9, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1873 (1968), and we review the reasonableness of brief investigatory stops, such as traffic stops, under a two-part test. First, a police officer's action must be "'justified at its inception,'" and second, the resulting detention must be "'reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.'" Lopez, 873 P.2d at 1131-32 (quoting Terry, 392 U.S. at 19-20, 88 S. Ct. at 1879).

Defendant first argues the trial court erred in finding the traffic stop was justified based on Deputy Owen Shiverdecker's testimony that he witnessed an equipment failure. After reviewing the record, we are unpersuaded that the trial court's finding that the traffic stop was justified was clearly erroneous. The mechanic's testimony does not help defendant because it only established that the rear license plate bulb was operable one month after the traffic stop. Likewise, testimony that the bulb was working shortly after the stop still does not refute Shiverdecker's testimony that he believed he saw an equipment failure as he passed defendant's vehicle. Accordingly, we will not supplant the trial court's finding on this matter with our own evaluation. See State v. Archuleta, 925 P.2d 1275, 1276-77 n.1 (Utah Ct. App. 1996).

We next address whether the scope of the resulting detention was reasonably related to the original circumstances justifying the traffic stop. "When a stop is made, the detention must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop." State v. O'Brien, 959 P.2d 647, 649 (Utah Ct. App. 1998) (citations omitted). During a routine traffic stop, an officer may detain the driver to check the driver's license and vehicle registration, and issue a citation. See id.

Defendant contends that Shiverdecker unconstitutionally detained him because the officer had no reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity once the driver told Shiverdecker unloaded guns were in the car. Defendant maintains this gave Shiverdecker no right to extend the scope of the traffic stop to check those weapons. Defendant also challenges the trial court's finding that Shiverdecker feared for his safety, thus justifying the weapons check. Defendant argues that because the record does not show Shiverdecker had legitimate safety concerns, no evidence supports a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.(1)

Courts, however, have given broad discretion to police officers who are concerned for their safety while detaining suspects. "So long as the officer is entitled to make a forcible stop, and has reason to believe that the suspect is armed and dangerous, he may conduct a weapons search limited in scope to [protect his safety]." Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143, 146, 92 S. Ct. 1921, 1923 (1972) (footnote omitted); see also Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 1049, 103 S. Ct. 3469, 3481 (1983) (holding officer may conduct weapons search if officer reasonably believes "suspect is dangerous and the suspect may gain immediate control of weapons").

This is not the first time we have encountered circumstances such as these. This court recently ruled that an officer did not exceed the scope of a traffic stop by conducting a weapons search after he learned the defendant had a weapon in the vehicle. See O'Brien, 959 P.2d at 649. The officer in that case was justified in suspending his original investigation of an equipment failure to first guard his safety. See id. (citing Adams, 407 U.S. at 148, 92 S. Ct. at 1924).

Indeed, we have rejected the notion that an officer must convince the court he was certain of criminal activity on the part of a defendant in order to conduct a warrantless search for weapons during a traffic stop. See State v. Bradford, 839 P.2d 866, 870-71 (Utah Ct. App. 1992). We reasoned in Bradford that "[t]he proper standard is objective, requiring only that a reasonably prudent person in the police officer's circumstances would believe his or her safety was threatened." Id. (citing State v. Roybal, 716 P.2d 291, 293 (Utah 1986); State v. Cole, 674 P.2d 119, 124 (Utah 1983)).

In light of the circumstances surrounding the traffic stop in this case, we conclude the trial court did not clearly err in finding Shiverdecker acted reasonably by detaining defendant to check the weapons. Shiverdecker stopped the vehicle at approximately 4:10 a.m. on a small, unlit highway near the Jordan River. He was alone and had not called for backup. The vehicle contained four unknown individuals. Shiverdecker also noticed several guns in plain view inside the vehicle within immediate reach of the passengers and driver.(2)

At minimum, Shiverdecker was justified in suspending his original investigation to detain defendant until Shiverdecker could assure his own safety. See State v. Chapman, 921 P.2d 446, 453 (Utah 1996); O'Brien, 959 P.2d at 649; see also Foote v. Spiegel, 118 F.3d 1416, 1425 (10th Cir. 1997). He was not required to take the word of the driver that the weapons were unloaded, nor did he have to wait for a passenger to make a threatening move before he checked the weapons to assure his own safety. We therefore affirm the trial court's denial of defendant's motion to suppress.

Pamela T. Greenwood,
Associate Presiding Judge



Michael J. Wilkins,
Presiding Judge

Judith M. Billings, Judge

1. The State points out that this is not necessarily true. Shiverdecker, upon hearing the defendant proclaim that multiple weapons were in the vehicle, "moved back behind the rear seat passenger to be a little more secure, and asked that [the occupants] hand the guns out by the barrels just so [he] could make sure they were unloaded."

2. Defendant does not contest the fact that the weapons or the pipe were in plain view, nor does he challenge that Shiverdecker had probable cause to search and arrest defendant.