Friday, October 14, 2011

Summary 2011 WY 143

Summary of Decision October 14, 2011

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Summaries are prepared by Law Librarians and are not official statements of the Wyoming Supreme Court

Case Name: Tiernan v. State

Citation: 2011 WY 143

Docket Number: S-11-0058


Appeal from the District Court of  Albany County, Honorable Jeffrey A. Donnell, Judge

Representing Appellant (Plaintiff): R. Michael Vang of Fleener & Vang, Laramie, Wyoming.

Representing Appellee (Defendant): Gregory A. Phillips, Wyoming Attorney General; Robin Sessions Cooley, Deputy Attorney General; Douglas J. Moench, Senior Assistant Attorney General; John S. Shumway, Assistant Attorney General.

Date of Decision: October 14, 2011

Facts: A Wyoming State Trooper stopped Appellant on suspicion of driving while impaired after he observed his vehicle cross the center line and the fog line a couple of times. The trooper conducted field sobriety tests and arrested Appellant for driving under the influence of alcohol. Appellant refused to submit to chemical testing and the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) advised him that it intended to suspend his driver’s license. Appellant requested a hearing during which he argued the trooper was not justified in stopping him. The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) upheld the suspension. Appellant appealed to the district court, which affirmed the OAH order. He has appealed the district court’s ruling affirming the OAH order. He contends the trooper failed to present sufficient facts to support the stop for a lane violation.

Issues: Whether the DVD recording taken from the trooper’s patrol car supports the conclusion that he had probable cause to stop Appellant for failing to maintain a single lane of traffic in violation of Wyo. Stat. 31-5-209(a)(i) (2011).

Holdings: The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. A routine traffic stop constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention quite brief. Detention of a motorist is justified when the officer has probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred or has a reasonable articulable suspicion that the particular motorist is engaged in criminal activity.

Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause and requires a fact-centered inquiry based on the totality of the circumstances. To the extent that the distinction between the two standards has been blurred, the Wyoming Supreme Court has stated that a law enforcement official’s personal observation of a traffic law violation provides probable cause to initiate a traffic stop. Whether an officer has reasonable suspicion to detain the drivers after the initial stop is a separate question the resolution of which depends on the circumstances. Likewise, the question of whether an officer has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justifying a traffic stop in the absence of personally observing a traffic violation is a separate question which is determined based upon the totality of the circumstances. In cases like the present one, however, the question is whether the evidence supports the conclusion that the trooper had probable cause to stop Appellant’s vehicle for failing to maintain a single lane of traffic.

In present action, the OAH examined all of the surrounding circumstances in determining whether the trooper was justified in stopping Appellant’s vehicle, including the trooper’s report, the DVD and Appellant’s argument that the DVD refuted the report. Upon consideration of all of the circumstances, the OAH concluded the trooper was warranted in stopping the vehicle.

An examination of the entire record shows substantial evidence supports the agency’s decision. The trooper stated in his report that he observed the vehicle cross over the center line, drift back to the right and cross over the fog line and drift again over the fog line at the approach of another vehicle. In addition to these statements, the OAH reviewed the DVD and found that although it did not depict clearly whether Appellant’s vehicle crossed over the lines because of its poor quality and limited duration, it did show the vehicle drifting from one side of the lane to the other more than once and, therefore, corroborated the trooper’s statements. Taken together, the report and the DVD constitute relevant evidence from which a reasonable mind might conclude that the trooper had probable cause to stop Appellant’s vehicle for a traffic violation.


C.J. Kite delivered the opinion for the court.

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