This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).






State of Minnesota,





Leo Joseph Goulette,



Filed ­­­June 8, 2004


Harten, Judge


Ramsey County District Court

File No. K6-02-3960


Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 1800 NCL Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN 55101; and


Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County Attorney, Darrell C. Hill, Assistant County Attorney, 50 West Kellogg Boulevard, Suite 315, St. Paul, MN 55102 (for respondent)


John M. Stuart, State Public Defender, Rochelle R. Winn, Assistant State Public Defender, 2221 University Avenue SE, Suite 425, Minneapolis, MN 55414 (for appellant)


            Considered and decided by Harten, Presiding Judge, Anderson, Judge, Crippen, Judge.*

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N




Appellant challenges the denial of his motion to suppress evidence that supported his conviction for fifth-degree controlled substance offense, arguing that police officers who stopped the car appellant was driving did not have an objective basis for the stop.  Because we conclude that the absence of a working rear license-plate light on the car provided an objective basis, we affirm.


            On 26 October 2002, two police officers in a squad car were driving behind a car driven by appellant Leo Goulette.  One officer noticed that the license plate light on the car appellant was driving was not working; the officer could not read the license plate until he got close up behind the car and later pulled next to it at a stoplight.  When the light changed, appellant’s car turned south and the officers’ car turned north. 

            After reading the plate, the officers checked the number through the computer and discovered that there was an outstanding arrest warrant for the car’s registered owner, whose general description fit that of the driver the officers had observed through the rear window of the car.  The officers then followed appellant’s car.  As they passed under a bridge, the officers briefly turned off their own lights to confirm that appellant’s license plate light was not working.  They then stopped appellant.

            Appellant identified himself and said his license had been cancelled as inimical to public safety.  While the officers were searching him incident to his arrest, they discovered methamphetamine that appellant admitted was his.  He was charged with fifth-degree controlled substance crime. 

            Appellant argued at the district court that the evidence should be suppressed because the officers did not have reasonable suspicion to stop him.  The district court rejected this argument and found that the officers stopped the car because “the lights on the rear license plate did not sufficiently illuminate the license plate number to comply with Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 169.52.”  Appellant raises the same issue on appeal.



            Whether there is reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop depends on findings of fact that are reviewed for clear error, but it is ultimately a question of law to be reviewed de novo.  State v. Britton, 604 N.W.2d 84, 87 (Minn. 2000).

Minn. Stat. § 169.50, subd. 2 (2002), requires that cars must be equipped so that the rear license plate is illuminated with a white light visible from 50 feet to the rear whenever the headlights or auxiliary driving lights are on.  An equipment violation is an objective basis for a stop.  State v. Miller, 659 N.W.2d 275, 278 (Minn. App. 2003) (citing State v. Battleson, 567 N.W.2d 69, 71 (Minn. App. 1997) (violation of a traffic law, however insignificant, provides an objective basis for a stop)), review denied (Minn. 15 July 2003).

The officers’ testimony indicates that they had an objective basis to stop appellant’s car.  One officer testified that (1) they pulled in behind appellant’s car, then pulled next to it, read the license number, and ran the number through the computer; (2) they learned that the registered owner of the car had an outstanding gross misdemeanor arrest warrant; (3) they noticed as they went under a bridge that “there was no illumination on the license plate;” (4) they followed the standard police procedure of briefly switching off their own lights to confirm that the car’s license plate was not illuminated; and (5) they stopped appellant’s car.  On cross-examination, the officer answered “Yes” when asked, “[A]nd isn’t it fair to say that the equipment violation is the primary reason for the stop?” and reiterated that the officers had made sure that appellant’s rear license plate light was not working before they stopped him. 

            The other officer testified that (1) he “noticed the vehicle did not have its license plate [light] on or working;” (2) the license plate was not legible for 50 feet; (3) he could only read the plate by coming close behind and then next to the car; (4) the officers ran a computer check and learned that the car’s registered owner possibly had a gross misdemeanor warrant for his arrest; (5) the officers turned and pursued appellant’s car for two reasons, the unilluminated license plate and the arrest warrant on the registered owner; (6) the officers confirmed the absence of a license plate light by switching off their own lights as they passed through a dark area; (7) he “noticed that there was not a license plate light, therefore, [he] initiated a traffic stop;” and (8) appellant asked why had he had been stopped and said, “Oh, oh, yeah,” when told that he did not have a license plate light.  When asked on cross-examination, “So, basically the reason you stopped him was for the license plate light that was not working; is that correct?”  The officer answered, “That is correct.”

            Both officers testified that they stopped appellant because his car’s license plate light was not working; appellant does not challenge either the condition of his light or the validity of a stop based on a non-working light. The weight and believability of witness testimony is for the district court to determine, and this court defers to its credibility findings.  Id. at 279.  We conclude that the officers had an objective basis for their stop of appellant’s car.[1]



* Retired judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, serving by appointment pursuant to Minn. Const. art. VI, § 10.

[1] Appellant argues that a stop based on the outstanding warrant for the registered owner would not have been valid because the registered owner listed was a female who was obviously not appellant.  This argument is irrelevant: the officers needed only one objective basis for a stop, and they both testified that the non-working license plate light was that basis.  Moreover, the officers testified that they did not know from the report that the registered owner was female.