This opinion will be unpublished and may
not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2000).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Nicolas Dale Schuft,
Reversed and remanded
Meeker County District Court
File No. T2993860
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 102 State Capitol, 75 Constitution Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55155; and
Michael J. Thompson, Meeker County Attorney, Gayle A. Borchert, Assistant County Attorney, 325 North Sibley Avenue, Litchfield, MN 55355 (for respondent)
Robert D. Schaps, 236 North Sibley Avenue, Litchfield, MN 55355 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge, Shumaker, Judge, and Foley, Judge.*
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
GORDON W. SHUMAKER, Judge
Appellant claims his due process rights were denied when the district court indicated it would credit a police officer’s proposed testimony prior to a contested pretrial suppression hearing. We reverse and remand.
At approximately 1:00 a.m. on December 19, 1999, state trooper Lonnie Pregler stopped appellant Nicholas Schuft as he was driving his pickup truck and arrested him for alcohol-related driving offenses.
After the state formally charged him with three misdemeanors, Schuft moved to suppress all evidence against him and to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that Pregler’s stop was illegal and that probable cause was lacking. Pregler’s reason for the stop was his belief that the loudness of Schuft’s muffler violated the law.
In a chambers discussion with the prosecutor and defense counsel prior to a Rasmussen hearing, the district judge stated that if the trooper were to testify that his reason for stopping Schuft was his belief that Schuft’s muffler was too loud, such testimony would be sufficient to establish a valid investigatory stop.
Upon the judge’s disclosure of his view of the effect of Pregler’s prospective testimony, Schuft decided to forgo an evidentiary hearing and instead enter into a stipulation with the prosecutor setting forth the evidence that would be adduced by the respective parties if a hearing were held. That evidence included Pregler’s assertion that he was sitting in his parked patrol car with the engine running, the windows rolled up and three radios operating, and that he could hear a very loud noise from the exhaust of Schuft’s truck as it approached and passed the patrol car.
Schuft proposed to offer evidence that he had new, legal mufflers installed three months earlier by a professional installer. He also proposed to offer a video/audio recording of a staged re-enactment of the occurrence to show that the exhaust sounds from his truck were no louder than the sounds of the exhausts of other vehicles in the area.
The court accepted the stipulation and found that Pregler could hear the exhaust of Schuft’s truck as it approached the patrol car, that the volume increased as Schuft’s truck came nearer, and that the noise was very loud as the truck passed the patrol car. The court concluded that Pregler’s belief that Schuft’s exhaust noise was too loud provided the basis for an investigatory stop. The court also ruled that Schuft’s proposed evidence was irrelevant.
The court denied Schuft’s motions to suppress the evidence and to dismiss the complaint and found Schuft guilty of the charges. Schuft appeals.
D E C I S I O N
In misdemeanor cases, the district court is required to hear and determine pretrial motions, and “[t]he defendant may offer evidence in defense, and the defendant and prosecution may cross-examine the other’s witnesses.” Minn. R. Crim. P. 12.02. Schuft alleges that the district court effectively denied him the right to a pretrial suppression hearing when the court indicated that a legal basis for the stop of Schuft’s truck would be established if the trooper testified that he believed Schuft’s muffler was too loud. The state contends that, despite the court’s comment, Schuft could have insisted on an evidentiary hearing and that by failing to do so he waived his right to such a hearing.
In explaining the reason Schuft stipulated to the evidence to be offered, Schuft’s attorney summarized the chambers discussion that led to the stipulation:
* * * the result of the discussion to my mind was that the court was of the view that if the police officer involved would articulate that the reason for stopping the defendant’s motor vehicle was because of his belief that the defendant’s vehicle’s exhaust was too loud or that it was loud enough to constitute a violation of law that that was sufficient for the court to find a valid stop notwithstanding what the defendant’s testimony or evidence might be contrary to that * * * . That was my understanding of it, and I would ask the court to indicate if that’s the correct understanding.
The court responded by confirming counsel’s statement:
The reasoning just submitted by Attorney Schaps was the court’s understanding as well. The – I believe the court secured the agreement of the parties to proceed as it appears that the facts would not – that the court felt were relevant were not in controversy.
The defense attorney then noted that there was no dispute as to what Pregler would testify or to what Schuft would testify, but “[i]t was just that it was the court’s view that Officer Pregler’s testimony was sufficient to deny the motion.” The court replied: “That was the position the court took.”
Fundamental fairness and due process guarantee a criminal defendant “a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.” State v. Richards, 495 N.W.2d 187, 191 (Minn. 1992) (quoting California v. Trombetta, 467 U.S. 479, 485, 104 S. Ct. 2528, 2532 (1984)). See also Chambers v. Mississippi, 410 U.S. 284, 294, 93 S. Ct. 1038, 1045 (1973) (due process encompasses a defendant’s right to “a fair opportunity to defend against the State’s accusations.”).
Two principal ways of presenting a defense to a criminal charge are the offer of evidence and the cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. Cross-examination is a vital instrument for testing the credibility of witnesses. State v. Bishop, 289 Minn. 188, 194, 183 N.W.2d 536, 540 (1971). It is a device that can be effective not only to expose dishonesty but also to show impairment in the witness’s ability and opportunity to know and to remember the facts, to uncover bias or improper motive, to accomplish specific impeachment, and to diminish the weight of the evidence.
It is unlikely that the court intended to prejudge any aspect of this case or to purposely deny Schuft an opportunity for an evidentiary hearing. But the effect of the court’s comments was to invite an altogether reasonable inference that the court had made up its mind to believe the trooper even without the benefit of cross-examination or consideration of countervailing evidence.
At a pretrial hearing on suppression issues, one of the trial court’s functions is to act as a fact finder and judge the credibility of the witnesses and evidence.
City of West St. Paul v. Smith, 404 N.W.2d 16, 18 (Minn. App. 1987) (citing State v. Pieschke, 295 N.W.2d 580, 584 (Minn. 1980)). Where facts are disputed, as they were here, the district court’s “duty is to resolve the testimonial disputes as to the historical facts * * *.” State v. Anderson, 396 N.W.2d 564, 565 (Minn. 1986).
Whether the court intended it or not, the functional equivalent of its comment was the unwarranted denial of an evidentiary hearing. When defense counsel asked questions of the court to be sure of the court’s position, it became clear, at least by inference, that an evidentiary hearing would be futile; the outcome was known. Under these circumstances we cannot view Schuft’s decision to forgo the hearing as a voluntary waiver of that hearing. Schuft was denied due process of law and the matter must be remanded.
Schuft also contends that the district court erred in ruling his evidence irrelevant, and he argues that, in any event, loud muffler noise does not in and of itself provide a legal basis for an investigatory stop.
Because the case is to be remanded for an evidentiary hearing, it is appropriate to allow the presiding judge to rule on the evidence in the fresh context of facts developed through testimony and other evidence. We note only that the technical rules of evidence do not apply to suppression hearings. Minn. R. Evid. 1101(a)(3). The court is at liberty to exercise its discretion judiciously so as to conduct an efficient hearing that is fair in both perception and actuality.
In arguing that loud muffler noise cannot justify an investigatory stop, Schuft relies on our decision in State v. Bender, 381 N.W.2d 896 (Minn. App. 1986). He misinterprets our holding in that case. An investigatory stop of a motor vehicle is permitted when an officer has an articulable reason for believing the driver may be in violation of the law. State v. George, 557 N.W.2d 575, 578 (Minn. 1997). The violation of a traffic law can provide such a reason. Id. Under the state traffic code, mufflers must be in a condition that prevents excessive or unusual noise. Minn. Stat. § 169.69 (Supp. 1999). We did not hold in Bender that muffler noise cannot justify a stop. Rather, we found the lack of an articulable factual basis for that stop. Bender, 381 N.W.2d at 898.
Finally, because the original district judge has ruled on the issue in dispute, he would have a basis for recusal if the matter is again assigned to him.
Reversed and remanded.
* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.