Crime and Justice

SCOV Law Blog: Reasonable suspicion grounds for traffic stop questioned

Editor’s note: This piece from the SCOV Law Blog is by Jacob Oblak.

State v. Brunetta, 2020 VT 109 

Here’s a story everyone has probably heard before. A police officer stops a driver for a small traffic infraction, like not using a blinker while turning, and then the driver gets arrested for DUI ― pretty common scenario.

What I bet you didn’t know is that Vermont’s traffic law about signaling turns allows a second method of signaling your turn: hand signals. This makes me think of bicycling. Bikes don’t usually have blinkers. So, the alternative method of hand signaling makes sense. I’ve done it myself while biking.

We aren’t here about bikes, though. We are here because a state trooper [allegedly] observed a driver named Anthony Brunetta fail to use a blinker, stopped Brunetta, and then arrested him for DUI. There are two pieces of DUI prosecution. One’s the obvious criminal charge, but separately, there’s the civil license suspension part. That’s a civil hearing in front of a judge.

That’s the scenario here, the civil suspension hearing. The defense attorney for Brunetta asked the arresting state trooper during the hearing some interesting questions, whose answers set up this appeal’s central question. The officer testified that it was dark out, and if Brunetta had used a blinker, he’d have seen it. He didn’t. Then, the attorney asked the trooper if he’d seen Brunetta roll down his window and signal with his hand. The trooper responded that he did not see that. Turns out the trooper’s view was of the passenger side of the vehicle, so he couldn’t have seen whether Brunetta signaled with his hands or not.

Everybody agrees that reasonable suspicion of illegal activity is required to make the stop. And everybody agrees that if the stop is supported by reasonable suspicion, the DUI case continues, whereas if the stop is not supported by reasonable suspicion, the resulting evidence of DUI would be suppressed/tossed (the legal doctrine called fruit of the poisonous tree). So, was there reasonable suspicion of a traffic infraction?

That’s where the State’s and Brunetta’s legal arguments diverge. Brunetta argues the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him in the first place, because the trooper offered zero testimony or evidence to show Brunetta hadn’t used his hands to signal. The State disagrees and argues the failure to use the blinker is enough to satisfy reasonable suspicion. The trial court agrees with the State, and Mr. Brunetta appeals to SCOV.

The SCOV majority of three justices begins by explaining what reasonable suspicion is: a reasonable and articulable suspicion of illegal activity, in this case of failing to signal a turn. The majority points out that a law enforcement officer doesn’t need to rule out every possible legal explanation for the defendant’s action or inaction or prove the violation occurred, at least for reasonable suspicion purposes, but only needs to articulate a reasonable basis to suspect a motor vehicle violation occurred. Furthermore, reasonable suspicion can be based in common sense, everyday conceptions without needing to satisfy legal technicalities.

The majority agrees with the State that reasonable suspicion existed here given the commonsense idea that people usually use blinkers to signal their car’s turn. Therefore, if Brunetta failed to do that, the trooper has reasonable suspicion that the turn-signal statute was violated even if the trooper can’t see the driver’s window to verify the driver isn’t signaling with his hand. The majority provides some examples from previously-decided cases for comparison.

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Example #1: Vermont motor vehicle law requires two license plates, while other states do not. SCOV has already decided that an officer who sees a car missing a front plate has reasonable suspicion of the violation even if they haven’t verified what state the car is from.

Example #2: SCOV has already decided that an officer who sees defective vehicle equipment has reasonable suspicion the car isn’t inspected even without seeing the inspection sticker, since you can’t inspect a defective car.

Example #3: SCOV has already decided the smell of marijuana could amount to probable cause (even more than reasonable suspicion) even if the officer hadn’t verified the person didn’t have a medical marijuana card.

Also, the majority offers public policy considerations that support its decision. The turn-signal statute is meant to provide drivers with safety by giving them advance warning of other drivers’ intentions to turn. If SCOV were to interpret the statute to require the officer to be able to see the driver’s window in order to verify the driver isn’t signaling by hand, that would really impede officers, given Vermont’s penchant for snow, rain, early darkness, and other obstacles obscuring officers’ views. Besides, using the blinker is a better, clearer method.

Two justices dissent. The dissent makes the point throughout its writing that this particular statute doesn’t make it an affirmative defense to use your hand signal. What the statute actually does, according to the plain language, is make hand signaling an equally effective way of avoiding any violation as using your blinker. In other words, either using your blinker or hand signaling satisfies the statute’s requirement. You can comply two different ways, not just one.

So, the dissent argues, of course the State doesn’t need to prove the violation occurred. All the State had to do was present even a single shred of testimony from the trooper that would lead him to reasonably suspect that Brunetta hadn’t hand signaled. But the State didn’t. All the trooper did was say Brunetta didn’t use a blinker, which nobody is contesting. Thus, the utter lack of evidence regarding hand signaling, in the dissent’s view, means that an element of the statutory violation was wholly without any evidentiary support. And if a violation, then, was not supported even in the slightest, then the stop couldn’t be justified by reasonable suspicion.

The dissent addresses the examples the majority offered, arguing that in each example there was some evidence of wrongdoing, and the question at issue was whether the evidence was sufficient. Here, however, the trooper who arrested Brunetta didn’t offer even a scintilla of evidence to show he hadn’t signaled with his hand. Additionally, the dissent argues that public policy weighing should be done by the Legislature, not the SCOV. Thus, the dissent would have held the stop was invalid and the DUI evidence should have been suppressed.

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