This opinion will be unpublished and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,
Christopher Russell Hanson,
Filed June 25, 2002
Reversed and remanded
Wright County District Court
File No. T4-01-1567
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park Street, Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Thomas N. Kelly, Wright County Attorney, Elizabeth Larson, Assistant County Attorney, Wright County Government Center, 10 Second Street Northwest, Suite 400, Buffalo, MN 55313 (for respondent)
Margaret Schneidewind, Assistant Wright County Public Defender, 205 Central Avenue, Buffalo, MN 55313 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Halbrooks, Presiding Judge, Klaphake, Judge, and Hanson, Judge.
On appeal from a conviction of driving after suspension, appellant argues that the district court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of a traffic stop for an obstructed rear license plate, where the defense presented evidence that there was no obstruction, the police report did not describe the obstruction and the police officer did not testify at the hearing on the motion. We reverse.
Early one morning, Wright County Sheriff’s Deputy Lang pulled over the vehicle that appellant Christopher Russell Hanson was driving. Deputy Lang requested Hanson’s identification, and determined that Hanson had no proof of insurance in the vehicle, Hanson’s driver’s license was suspended, and there was a warrant for Hanson’s arrest. Deputy Lang also found what he thought to be marijuana cigarettes on Hanson. Deputy Lang wrote in his report that he stopped Hanson “for no license plate light, [and] obstructed rear plate.”
The state charged Hanson with driving after suspension, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 171.24, subd. 1 (2000); failure to provide proof of insurance, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 169.791, subd. 3 (2000); and possession of a small amount of marijuana, a violation of Minn. Stat. § 152.027, subd. 4 (2000). Hanson later provided the state with proof of insurance and the state dismissed that charge. At the pretrial hearing, Hanson moved to suppress the evidence underlying the two remaining charges, arguing it was obtained pursuant to an unlawful stop. After the district court denied Hanson’s motion, Hanson waived his right to a jury trial and his case was submitted on stipulated facts pursuant to the procedure authorized in State v. Lothenbach, 296 N.W.2d 854 (Minn. 1980).
The district court found Hanson guilty of driving after suspension and failure to provide insurance, but not guilty of possession of a small amount of marijuana. Shortly after issuing its judgment, the district court discovered that the state had already dismissed the charge of failure to provide insurance and dismissed that portion of its judgment. The district court sentenced Hanson to 90 days in jail for the driving after suspension conviction with 86 days stayed, and imposed a fine. This appeal followed.
When reviewing a district court’s pretrial order on a motion to suppress evidence, we “may independently review the facts and determine, as a matter of law, whether the district court erred in * * * not suppressing [ ] the evidence.” State v. Harris, 590 N.W.2d 90, 98 (Minn. 1999) (citation omitted).
Law enforcement officials may
conduct limited stops to investigate suspected criminal activity when the police can “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) (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1880 (1968)). The standard set forth in Terry v. Ohio applies to investigatory traffic stops. Marben v. State, Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 294 N.W.2d 697, 699 (Minn. 1980). Whether a limited investigatory stop is based on reasonable suspicion is a legal question, which we review de novo. Britton, 604 N.W.2d at 87; see also Jobe v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 609 N.W.2d 919, 921 (Minn. App. 2000) (stating that the validity of a stop presents a purely legal question). We will reverse the district court’s factual findings only if they are clearly erroneous. Britton, 604 N.W.2d at 87.
Deputy Lang did not testify at the omnibus hearing. His report does not indicate what was obstructing Hanson’s license plate at the time Deputy Lang pulled him over, and the state offered no other evidence. Nonetheless, the state proceeded with the theory that the vehicle’s license was obstructed by snow. At the hearing, the state asked Hanson whether he agreed (1) it had been snowing the day he was stopped, (2) it had been a snowy winter, and (3) when he looked at his plate after receiving the citation, that it was obstructed by snow. Hanson agreed it had been a snowy winter but answered the state’s other snow-related questions in the negative.
Hanson offered photographs of the rear of his vehicle. The photos do not show any obstruction. Furthermore, Rachael Ragan, the person who took the photographs, testified that she observed Hanson’s truck on the day he was stopped and did not see anything obstructing his license plate.
The district court found Hanson’s license plate was obstructed by snow and concluded that Deputy Lang properly stopped Hanson. See Minn. Stat. § 169.79 (g) (2000) (stating that it is unlawful for a license plate to be obstructed in any way).
We conclude that the district court’s finding regarding the presence of snow was clearly erroneous, that the stop was unlawful, and that the district court erred by not suppressing the evidence obtained as a result of the unlawful stop. See State v. Pietraszewski, 285 Minn. 212, 219, 172 N.W.2d 758, 763 (1969) (citing Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 484, 83 S. Ct. 407, 416 (1963)) (stating that the exclusionary rule prohibits the admission of any evidence that is illegally obtained). The state presented no evidence to prove the obstruction, relying solely on the police report. The police report simply states “obstructed rear plate,” with no description of the obstruction. The testimony and photographs presented by Hanson show an unobstructed rear license plate. Under these facts, the district court could not infer, from the unsupported and nonspecific conclusion in the police report, that the license plate was “obscured by snow.”
The state argues that even if the stop was improper, the evidence was properly admitted because it would inevitably have been discovered legally. See State v. Robb, 605 N.W.2d 96, 100 (Minn. 2000) (citing Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 444, 104 S. Ct. 2501, 2509 (1984) (stating that illegally obtained evidence is admissible under an exception to the exclusionary rule where the evidence would have been discovered by legal means). The state asserts that a police officer has the authority to determine the status of the driver’s license after pulling over a motor vehicle for a routine traffic stop. While this is true, we have concluded that the state has failed to prove that Hanson was lawfully pulled over in a routine traffic stop. Therefore, this argument does not apply.
The state then argues that “[b]oth the driver’s license status and warrant status would have been discovered by routine check, had the license plate been readable.” The difficulty with this argument is that it assumes a premise that the state failed to prove – that the license plate was not readable. Based on this record, we must conclude that the license plate was readable and that police would not have inevitably discovered Hanson’s driver’s license status and the outstanding warrant from a readable license plate because they did not do so.
Because the district court erred in denying Hanson’s motion to suppress, we reverse Hanson’s conviction and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Reversed and remanded.
 The district court said nothing in its order about the license plate light and Hanson testified that his vehicle’s rear lights functioned properly at the time he was stopped.