This opinion will be unpublished and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,
Dollie Mae Lincoln,
Filed February 5, 2002
Scott County District Court
File No. 199818064
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Street, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Thomas J. Harbinson, Scott County Attorney, Diane M. Hanson, Assistant Scott County Attorney, Ruby Q. Dasgupta, Assistant Scott County Attorney, 200 West Fourth Avenue, Shakopee, MN 55379 (for appellant)
Richard F. Koch, Koch & Garvis Law Firm, 3109 Hennepin Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55408 (for respondent)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Anderson, Judge.
G. BARRY ANDERSON, Judge.
The district court granted respondent’s motion to suppress evidence seized in connection with a traffic stop and respondent’s subsequent arrest for driving while under the influence of alcohol. Appellant argues that the district court erred by granting respondent’s motion to suppress because the traffic stop was supported by reasonable, articulable suspicion that respondent’s license tabs were stolen or mismatched with the wrong vehicle. We affirm.
Appellant was arrested after a traffic stop. The state charged respondent with driving while under the influence of alcohol, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 169.121, subds. 1(a), 3(c)(2) (1998), and driving while having an alcohol concentration of .10 or more, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 169.121, subds. 1(d), 3(c)(2) (1998). Respondent moved to suppress all evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop.
At an omnibus hearing, the arresting state patrol trooper testified that he first observed respondent driving in the lane in front of his squad car. The trooper routinely checked respondent’s license-plate number to verify, among other things, whether respondent’s vehicle’s registration was current. The trooper recognized that respondent’s vehicle had current July 1999 license tabs, but the squad car’s mobile data terminal suggested respondent had only renewed her license tabs through July 1998. The trooper, suspecting respondent’s correctly applied July 1999 tabs were either stolen or mismatched, or that the state’s information was not current, stopped respondent to investigate further; the trooper testified, however, that he did not stop respondent for aberrant driving or for any other suspicious reason. The trooper testified that respondent “hit [her] brakes hard” when he activated his emergency lights to initiate the traffic stop.
During their conversation, the trooper noticed respondent’s blood-shot eyes; respondent also admitted drinking one glass of wine and seemed confused, unable to answer the trooper’s questions and retrieve her license and registration at the same time. The trooper, suspecting respondent was under the influence of alcohol, asked respondent to take a PBT, which respondent refused to take; the trooper subsequently administered a field-sobriety test, which respondent failed.
The trooper arrested respondent for driving under the influence of alcohol. The trooper later confirmed that respondent’s vehicle’s registration was current, but that one of the state’s computers, the source of information for his mobile data terminal, had not been updated to reflect her recent July 1999 registration renewal. The district court granted respondent’s motion to suppress all evidence resulting from the traffic stop. This appeal followed.
This is an appeal pursuant to Minn. R. Crim. P. 28.04, subd. 1(1).
[W]hen reviewing a pre-trial order suppressing evidence where the facts are not in dispute and the trial court’s decision is a question of law, the reviewing court may independently review the facts and determine, as a matter of law, whether the evidence need be suppressed.
State v. Othoudt, 482 N.W.2d 218, 221 (Minn. 1992) (citations omitted). When the state appeals pretrial suppression orders, it
must ‘clearly and unequivocally’ show both that the trial court’s order will have a ‘critical impact’ on the state’s ability to prosecute the defendant successfully and that the order constituted error.
State v. Scott, 584 N.W.2d 412, 416 (Minn. 1998) (quoting State v. Zanter, 535 N.W.2d 624, 630 (Minn. 1995)).
Here, if the initial investigatory stop was unlawful, then all the evidence uncovered after the stop must be suppressed. Therefore, because the district court’s suppression of the evidence in this case precludes prosecution, the state has satisfied the critical-impact standard.
Appellant first argues that because the trooper had information that the vehicle’s registration expired two months earlier but displayed current tabs, he had reasonable, articulable suspicion that the tabs may have been stolen or were mismatched with another vehicle’s tabs. Appellant also argues that because the trooper was unable to access current registration information because certain state offices were closed, it was reasonable to stop respondent and question her further about the apparent registration discrepancy. We disagree.
The United States Supreme Court has held,
that except in those situations in which there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 663, 99 S. Ct. 1391, 1401 (1979). Therefore, investigatory stops to check a driver’s license or a vehicle’s registration, if not supported by reasonable, articulable suspicion, are unconstitutional. See State v. McKinley, 305 Minn. 297, 302-04, 232 N.W.2d 906, 910-11 (1975). “[T]he police [must] ‘point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.’” State v. Britton, 604 N.W.2d 84, 87 (Minn. 2000) (quotation omitted).
“[T]he factual basis required to support a stop for a ‘routine traffic check’ is minimal.” State v. Johnson, 257 N.W.2d 308, 309 (Minn. 1977) (quotation omitted). An officer, however, must have “something more than an unarticulated ‘hunch’; the officer must be able to point to something objectively supporting [her] suspicion.” Britton, 604 N.W.2d at 87 (citations omitted). We must examine “the events surrounding the stop and consider the totality of the circumstances in determining whether the police had a reasonable basis justifying the stop.” Id. at 87 (citation omitted).
Several Minnesota cases recognize the propriety of an investigatory stop where the status or condition of the driver’s license, the vehicle’s license plates, or the vehicle’s license tabs create reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity. State v. Duesterhoeft, 311 N.W.2d 866, 868 (Minn. 1981) (investigatory stop proper where officer believed defendant’s driver’s license was revoked and where officer reasonably suspected defendant was the driver of the vehicle); State v. Barber, 308 Minn. 204, 207, 241 N.W.2d 476, 477 (1976) (investigatory stop proper where license plates were affixed using wire, “in an unusual, although apparently legal, way”); State v. Lopez, 631 N.W.2d 810, 812-13 (Minn. App. 2001) (investigatory stop proper where vehicle did not have license plates), review denied (Minn. Sept. 25, 2001); State v. Kittridge, 613 N.W.2d 771, 773 (Minn. App. 2000) (investigatory stop proper where vehicle displayed expired license plate), review denied (Minn. Sept. 13, 2000); State v. Hickman, 491 N.W.2d 673, 675 (Minn. App. 1992) (investigatory stop proper where vehicle displayed expired license tabs), review denied (Minn. Dec. 15, 1992).
At the omnibus hearing, the trooper testified that in his view there were three different explanations for the registration-information discrepancy: (1) the July 1999 tabs were stolen; (2) the state’s computer was not updated to reflect respondent’s recent registration renewal; and (3) the tabs were mismatched; or, in other words, respondent may have inadvertently placed the July 1999 tabs on the wrong vehicle. According to the trooper, these three explanations, in addition to his “hunches” that the tabs were either stolen or mismatched, afforded him reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop respondent’s vehicle to inquire further.
The district court found that where there are two plausible explanations for a registration-status discrepancy, there must be an additional reason to justify an investigatory stop. The court recognized that “stopping the [respondent] could neither confirm nor deny the trooper’s suspicion. * * * The only way [the] Trooper * * * could confirm his suspicion, as he testified, was to call the Department of Public Safety for up to date information.” The district court concluded, “The reasonable thing to do was record the license plate number, check it first thing Monday morning, and then investigate further.” We agree.
We conclude that because the trooper based the investigatory stop solely on his mobile data terminal’s information, which he knew may not be reliable, in addition to his “hunches” that the tabs were either stolen or mismatched, he did not have reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity to institute an investigatory stop to question respondent about the discrepancy.
Here, respondent was operating her vehicle legally, with current, properly affixed license tabs. It is undisputed that she was not violating the state law that mandates vehicles be re-registered annually. The trooper, however, notwithstanding respondent’s apparently legal motor-vehicle operation, instead relied on the mobile data terminal’s admittedly unreliable information and his “hunches” to support an inference that the tabs were either stolen or mismatched.
The supreme court, however, requires more. In State v. Britton, officers observed a broken window in a vehicle and suspected that the vehicle was stolen; they subsequently checked the vehicle’s license plates and found that the vehicle was not stolen. Britton, 604 N.W.2d at 86. The Britton court concluded that the broken window itself did not support reasonable suspicion that the vehicle was stolen to support an investigatory stop. Id. at 88. The Britton court distinguished State v. Barber by suggesting that observable license plate alterations “can be suggestive of ongoing criminal activity in a way that a broken window is not.” Id. at 89.
Here, the facts are the converse of Britton. The mobile data terminal’s information did not arguably dispel the trooper’s suspicion, it created his suspicion. Therefore, the trooper had a choice: He could rely on what he directly observed on respondent’s vehicle and investigate further when the state offices re-opened, or he could rely on the mobile data terminal’s admittedly secondary information and stop respondent, even though respondent would likely not have been able to dispel his suspicion created by the state computer’s information even by offering simple, honest responses.
We therefore conclude that without an additional reason to corroborate the mobile data terminal’s information, the mere registration discrepancy did not support reasonable suspicion that respondent’s registration had expired.
Because we conclude that the mere registration discrepancy did not support reasonable suspicion to initiate the investigatory stop, we need not address the question whether the trooper initially had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle when he checked the vehicle’s license plates on the state’s computer, and whether that suspicion was subsequently dispelled when he observed the current license tabs. See, e.g., Britton, 604 N.W.2d at 88 (“[R]easonable suspicion, if actually dispelled by further investigation prior to the stop, does not justify a Terry-type seizure.” (citation omitted)); State v. Pike, 551 N.W.2d 919, 922 (Minn. 1996) (if a vehicle’s owner has a revoked license, it is reasonable to assume that the owner is driving the vehicle, and to stop the vehicle, unless other facts suggest the owner is not driving the vehicle); State v. Baumann, 616 N.W.2d 771, 774 (Minn. App. 2000) (in the context of expired driver’s licenses, “[o]nce an officer obtains information that tends to show the owner of the vehicle [with the expired license] is not the individual driving the vehicle, * * * reasonable suspicion ceases” (citation omitted)); Hickman, 491 N.W.2d at 675 (if an officer’s suspicions are “dispelled before [approaching] the driver,” any additional intrusion, such as asking for the driver’s license, is unconstitutional). But cf. Lopez, 631 N.W.2d at 814 (noting that an officer may approach a vehicle after noticing a legal temporary permit to “inform the driver he is free to go” and from this conversation may acquire independent reasonable suspicion to “continue or recommence the detention”).
Because we conclude that the stop was not supported by reasonable, articulable suspicion, we decline to address respondent’s argument that remand is appropriate for the district court to evaluate whether respondent’s seizure exceeded the permissible scope of the initial investigatory stop. In turn, we decline to address appellant’s argument that the trooper had reasonable suspicion, after speaking to respondent, to request that respondent submit to a PBT and field-sobriety tests.