This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2004).







State of Minnesota,


Cassandra Lee Pexa,


Filed July 3, 2006

Reversed and remanded

Wright, Judge


Scott County District Court

File No. 70-CR-05-14924



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


Patrick J. Ciliberto, Scott County Attorney, Michael J. Groh, Assistant County Attorney, 200 Fourth Avenue West, Shakopee, MN  55379 (for appellant)


Kyle Wermerskirchen, Law Offices of John S. Hughes, Ltd., Barristers Trust Building, 247 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN  55415 (for respondent)



            Considered and decided by Shumaker, Presiding Judge; Wright, Judge; and Ross, Judge.


U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N




In this appeal from a pretrial order suppressing evidence of intoxication and dismissing the charge of driving while impaired, the state argues that the district court erred in ruling that there was “no basis for the stop.”  Because the findings are insufficient to permit appellate review, we reverse and remand.



            On June 16, 2005,respondent Cassandra Lee Pexa was charged by citation with fourth-degree driving while impaired, in violation of Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.20, subd. 1, .27 (2004), after water patrol deputy Brett Krick stopped her personal watercraft on Prior Lake.  At a suppression hearing on January 19, 2006, Deputy Krick testified that he “observed a personal watercraft with a female operator creating a wake within 150 feet of another watercraft on Prior Lake,” a violation of Minn. Stat. § 86B.313, subd. 1(a)(3)(v) (2004) (prohibiting operation of personal watercraft “at greater than slow-no wake speed” within 150 feet of another watercraft).  Deputy Krick testified that he kept the “watercraft in sight at all times” prior to initiating the stop.  Deputy Krick identified Pexa as the operator of the personal watercraft and, after further investigation, arrested her for driving while impaired. 

            Jacob Gooderum, who was with Pexa on the day she was arrested, testified that Pexa was idling on one personal watercraft and “spinning around close to the dock” while he was “tearing around” a bit on another one.  Gooderum also stated there were no other boats within “several hundred feet.”  When asked about his operation of the watercraft, Gooderum stated: “[I]f anyone was driving, you know, how they shouldn’t be, it was me.”  And when asked if he thought the deputy observed him rather than Pexa, Gooderum testified: “If anything, because [Pexa] was only idling next to the dock.  That’s the only explanation I could think of.” 

            Pexa testified that she had been circling next to the dock with no wake and was idling when the deputy approached.  Pexa testified that the nearest boat was “two to three hundred feet” away. 

            After hearing the testimony, the district court interrupted the state’s summation and ruled from the bench, stating: “I’m going to find the stop was improper, that there was no basis for the stop, the evidence obtained as a result of the stop is excluded from use at trial.  As a result, I’m going to order the case dismissed.”  This appeal followed.



When appealing from a pretrial suppression order, “the state 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) (citing State v. Zanter, 535 N.W.2d 624, 630 (Minn. 1995)).  Here, suppression of the evidence has a critical impact on the state’s ability to prosecute Pexa because it results in the dismissal of the state’s case.  State v. Johnson, 392 N.W.2d 685, 687 (Minn. App. 1986).

Thus, we next consider whether the district court’s ruling was erroneous.  We review de novo a district court’s determination of whether there was reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity to justify a limited investigatory stop.  State v. Britton, 604 N.W.2d 84, 87 (Minn. 2000).  In doing so, we review the district court’s findings of fact for clear error and give due weight to inferences drawn from those facts by the district court.  State v. Lee, 585 N.W.2d 378, 383 (Minn. 1998).  We also defer to the district court’s assessment of witness credibility.  State v. Miller, 659 N.W.2d 275, 279 (Minn. App. 2003), review denied (Minn. July 15, 2003).  The district court’s findings of fact in support of its suppression ruling must be sufficiently detailed to permit us to ascertain the basis for the district court’s ruling.  State v. Rainey, 303 Minn. 550, 550, 226 N.W.2d 919, 921 (1975).

“A brief investigatory stop requires only reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, rather than probable cause.”  State v. Pike, 551 N.W.2d 919, 921 (Minn. 1996).  An investigatory stop is valid when the officer who initiated the stop articulates a “‘particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular persons stopped of criminal activity.’”  State v. Kvam, 336 N.W.2d 525, 528 (Minn. 1983) (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18, 101 S. Ct. 690, 695 (1981)).  In determining whether this standard has been met, courts “should consider the totality of the circumstances and should remember that trained law-enforcement officers are permitted to make ‘inferences and deductions that might well elude an untrained person.’”  Id. (quoting Cortez, 449 U.S. at 418, 101 S. Ct. at 695). 

A law-enforcement officer need not observe a violation of the traffic laws to stop a vehicle.  Rather, an investigatory stop is valid if it “was not the product of mere whim, caprice or idle curiosity, but was based upon ‘specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.’”  Pike, 551 N.W.2d at 921-22 (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1880 (1968)).  An investigatory stop may not be constitutionally infirm if a valid basis for the stop existed, even if the officer’s decision was made in error.  State v. Pleas, 329 N.W.2d 329, 332 (Minn. 1983).

Thus, even if an officer mistakenly stops the wrong vehicle after observing unlawful driving activity, the stop may still be valid if an objectively reasonable basis for the stop existed.  Johnson, 392 N.W.2d at 687.  In Johnson, the district court heard conflicting testimony from the officer and the defendant as to whether the officer stopped the same vehicle the officer had observed violating the law.  Id. at 686.  Finding that the officer had observed a traffic violation but the officer stopped the wrong vehicle, the district court determined the stop was invalid.  Id. at 687.  We disagreed, reasoning that “such a mistake in identity does not necessarily render the stop invalid.”  Id.  After considering the circumstances of the stop, including the time of day and make of the car, the Johnson court concluded that the officer’s assumption that the car he stopped was the same car he had observed violating the law was reasonable.  Id. at 687-88.  The stop, therefore, was valid. 

            The state argues that the district court erred in suppressing the evidence because Deputy Krick’s testimony established a reasonable basis for the stop, even if he mistakenly stopped the wrong watercraft.  Pexa counters that, because the district court clearly made a credibility determination when it ruled that there was “no basis for the stop,” the district court’s decision to suppress the evidence was not erroneous.  The district court neither made findings of fact nor explained the basis for its ruling.  Therefore, we must determine whether the record will permit us to infer the basis for the district court’s suppression decision.

In State v. Kvam,under similar circumstances involving a traffic stop for suspected driving while impaired, the Minnesota Supreme Court reviewed the district court’s order in light of three possible scenarios.  336 N.W.2d 525, 527-28 (Minn. 1983).  First, the supreme court assumed that the district court credited all of the officer’s uncontradicted testimony but determined there was no basis for the stop.  Id.  at 528.  Second, the supreme court assumed that the district court credited some, but not all, of the officer’s testimony.  Id.  In doing so, the Kvam court assumed that the district court did not believe that the officer observed a violation of the law but only a car weaving within the lane.  Id.  Third, the Kvam court assumed that the district court did not credit any of the officer’s testimony.   Id.

Because the officer’s testimony included evidence sufficient to warrant an investigatory stop, the Kvam court determined that whether to reverse the district court’s decision to suppress the evidence or to remand for findings depended on whether the district court was justified in rejecting the officer’s testimony in its entirety.  Id.  In the interests of judicial economy, the supreme court concluded that it would have been error for the district court to have discredited the officer’s testimony in its entirety.  Id. at 528-29.  And because the officer’s testimony that he observed weaving within the lane provided a sufficient basis for the stop, the Kvam court reversed and remanded the case for trial.  Id. at 529. 

Here, if Deputy Krick observed the conduct he described, there was a lawful basis to stop the watercraft.  But both Pexa and Gooderum testified that there were no boats within 150 feet of their respective watercraft and that Pexa was not creating a wake when operating her watercraft.  These witnesses testified that Pexa stayed close to the dock, either circling or idling.  Thus, it is possible that the district court concluded there was “no basis for the stop” because it did not believe that the deputy observed either unlawful or erratic operation of the watercraft to justify the stop.  If the district court found that all of Deputy Krick’s testimony relating to Pexa’s operation of the watercraft lacked credibility, then deference to this determination would be warranted and suppression would be proper. 

But it is also possible that the district court credited some or all of Deputy Krick’s testimony but suppressed the evidence because the deputy stopped the wrong vehicle.  If this is the case, the district court erred as a matter of law.  Here, unlike the facts in Kvam, there are not enough uncontraverted facts in the record to permit us to discern, in the absence of factual findings, whether the officer had a constitutionally valid basis for the stop.  Because we cannot ascertain the rationale for the district court’s ruling, we reverse and remand for findings sufficient to permit appellate review.

Reversed and remanded.