This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2006).






Chad Steven Stern, petitioner,


Commissioner of Public Safety,


Filed April 3, 2007


Collins, Judge*


Carver County District Court

File No. 10-CV-06-60



Robert A. Lengeling, Gerald A. Miller, Gerald Miller & Associates, P.A., 2915 Wayzata Boulevard, Minneapolis, MN  55405 (for respondent)


Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Jeffrey F. Lebowski, Kimberly J. Middendorf, Assistant Attorneys General, 1800 Bremer Tower, 445 Minnesota Street, St. Paul, MN  55101-2134 (for appellant)



            Considered and decided by Stoneburner, Presiding Judge; Kalitowski, Judge; and Collins, Judge.

U N P U B L I S H E D   O P I N I O N


            The Commissioner of Public Safety appeals the district court’s order rescinding the revocation of respondent’s driving privileges under the implied-consent law.  Because the district court’s findings demonstrate that the deputy had a reasonable articulable suspicion to stop respondent’s motor vehicle for malfunctioning taillights, we reverse.  


            This court will not reverse the district court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous.  Thompson v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 567 N.W.2d 280, 281 (Minn. App. 1997), review denied (Minn. Sept. 25, 1997); see also Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.  When an appellate court reviews a traffic stop based on given facts, the test is not whether the district court decision is clearly erroneous, but whether, as a matter of law, the basis for the stop was adequate.  Berge v. Comm’r of Pub. Safety, 374 N.W.2d 730, 732 (Minn. 1985).

            A sheriff’s deputy on nighttime patrol met respondent Chad Steven Stern’s vehicle traveling on a Carver County highway.  As they passed, the deputy observed in a rear view mirror that respondent’s vehicle’s taillights were not illuminated.  After turning his squad car around and confirming that the taillights were still not visible, the deputy stopped respondent’s vehicle based on the equipment violation.  Respondent subsequently failed an Intoxilyzer-breath-test, and an order of revocation of respondent’s driving privileges issued.  Following a hearing at which respondent challenged only the basis for the stop, the district court found that “the stop was improper” and ordered rescission of the revocation of respondent’s driving privileges.

            Consistent with Terry v. Ohio, an officer must have a specific and articulable suspicion of a violation before stopping a vehicle.  Marben v. State, Dep’t of Pub. Safety, 294 N.W.2d 697, 699 (Minn. 1980) (citing Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 88 S. Ct. 1868 (1968)).  Minnesota cases “do not require much of a showing in order to justify a traffic stop.  Ordinarily, if an officer observes a violation of a traffic law, however insignificant, the officer has an objective basis for stopping the vehicle.”  State v. George, 557 N.W.2d 575, 578 (Minn. 1997); see also State v. Wiegand, 645 N.W.2d 125, 133 (Minn. 2002) (indicating that police officer’s traffic stop for burned-out headlight was “legitimate” and routine).  But a stop may not be based on mere “whim, caprice, or idle curiosity.”  Marben, 294 N.W.2d at 699.

            In keeping with settled law, the stop of respondent’s vehicle was justified if it was based on an observed equipment violation.  Lighted taillamps must be displayed on every vehicle upon a highway at night.  Minn. Stat. § 169.48, subd. 1(a)(1) (2004).  A motor vehicle operated in Minnesota must be equipped with at least one working taillamp.  Minn. Stat. § 169.50, subd. 1 (Supp. 2005); see also Minn. Stat. § 169.47 (2004) (making use of vehicle without lamps in proper condition misdemeanor).  The district court accepted the deputy’s testimony that he had observed respondent’s vehicle operating without taillights.  This observation alone was dispositive justification for the stop.  Therefore, the stop was lawful.

            In the order, the district court wrote:  “While the [c]ourt understands that [the deputy’s] observation of [respondent’s] vehicle without taillights on may have created some curiosity, the [deputy’s] observations were not enough to initiate the stop.  This [c]ourt believes that [the deputy] should have observed some additional improper driving behavior prior to initiating the stop.” (Emphasis added.)  But such is not the law.     

            Respondent contends that the district court weighed the credibility of the witnesses and appropriately found the respondent’s testimony more persuasive.  But the district court’s credibility determinations adverse to the deputy did not go to the court’s only essential finding—that the deputy observed respondent’s vehicle being operated without taillights on.  The court’s credibility findings favoring respondent went to some further observations of which the deputy testified, but which were unnecessary to justify the traffic stop. 

            Because the district court’s doubts about other observations made by the deputy are not material to the justification for the stop, we conclude that the district court erred in its application of the facts to the established law justifying traffic stops for even minor equipment violations.



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