Appeal from the District Court, Third Judicial District, Palmer, John W. Wolfe, Judge. Trial Court No. 3PA-04-3654 CR.
Lisa C. Valenta, Assistant Public Defender, Palmer, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.
W. Michael Perry, Assistant District Attorney, and Roman J. Kalytiak, District Attorney, Palmer, and David W. Márquez, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.
Before: Coats, Chief Judge, and Mannheimer and Stewart, Judges.MEMORANDUM OPINION AND JUDGMENT
Jimmy E. Bridges was convicted of driving while under the influence and driving with a suspended or revoked license. He appeals his convictions, arguing that his stop was illegal and that the district court should have suppressed the evidence against
him. He claims that the district court clearly erred in relying on the arresting officer's testimony to conclude that there was probable cause to stop him for a traffic violation. Because the court's findings were not clearly erroneous and support the conclusion that the officer had probable cause to stop Bridges, we affirm his conviction.
Facts and proceedings
On December 21, 2004, Palmer Police Officer Shayne R. Lacroix was on traffic patrol when he spotted a Ford Escort station wagon two or three car lengths ahead of him with a damaged driver's side taillight. The taillight had been repaired with red tape, but the tape had started to come off and the taillight was emitting white light to the rear, in violation of the traffic code. Officer Lacroix activated his in-car video camera and stopped the vehicle.
When Officer Lacroix contacted the driver, Bridges, he observed that Bridges had red, watery, bloodshot eyes and a strong odor of alcoholic beverages. He asked Bridges for his driver's license. Bridges told Officer Lacroix that his license had been suspended or revoked. Bridges also admitted that he had been drinking. After administering field sobriety tests, Officer Lacroix arrested Bridges for driving while under the influence and driving with a suspended or revoked license.
Before trial, Bridges moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the video recording of his stop demonstrated that his taillight had not emitted white light and that Officer Lacroix did not have probable cause to stop him for a traffic violation. District Court Judge John W. Wolfe held an evidentiary hearing on the motion. At that hearing, Officer Lacroix testified that he stopped Bridges because he observed white light coming from the taillight of his vehicle. Officer Lacroix said that when he approached the vehicle
on foot, he looked at the taillight more closely and saw that there was a hole in the plastic covering of the light. The State also played the video recording of the stop.
Bridges then testified in his defense. He admitted that the taillight of his vehicle was broken and that he had taped it up. But he denied that the taillight was emitting any white light.
Based on this evidence, the court denied the motion to suppress. Judge Wolfe said he thought he saw that the taillight was emitting white light when he viewed the video recording of the stop, but he was "not certain. " However, he found that "what the officer saw would have been much clearer than what is capable of being recorded. " He also found that the officer's testimony that he had seen a white light coming from the taillight was credible. He therefore ruled that the stop was supported by probable cause to believe that Bridges had committed a traffic violation, and he denied the motion to suppress.
Bridges was convicted of the charged offenses. He now appeals the denial of his motion to suppress.
Why we conclude the stop was supported by probable cause
Bridges does not dispute that an officer who observes a traffic violation has probable cause for a stop. Rather, he argues that Judge Wolfe clearly erred in believing Officer Lacroix's testimony that his taillight emitted a white light because that testimony was not clearly substantiated by the video recording of the stop. He also argues that Officer Lacroix's behavior in looking closely at the taillight to make sure it was broken showed that the officer was uncertain he had seen a white light. He further asserts that Officer Lacroix's testimony was unreliable because he was unfamiliar with the taillight
arrangement of a Ford Escort and thus might have seen a reflection of his own headlights in the reverse light lens of Bridges's vehicle.
The existence of probable cause for a traffic stop is a mixed question of law and fact. The district court, as the trier of fact, weighs the credibility of the evidence and the witnesses and resolves any conflicts and inconsistencies in that evidence. We uphold the district court's factual findings absent clear error — that is, unless we are left "with a definite and firm conviction on the entire record that a mistake has been made. " We review de novo the legal issue of whether those facts support probable cause.
An officer has probable cause to initiate a traffic stop if he is "aware of facts and circumstances, based on reasonably trustworthy information, which are 'sufficient in themselves to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that' an offense has been or is being committed. " It is not necessary that the officer be aware of facts sufficient for a conviction. Indeed, probable cause may be established "even though the facts known to the officer could also be reconciled with innocence. " Thus, to have probable cause for the stop, Officer Lacroix did not have to observe facts from which he could conclusively determine that Bridges's taillight emitted a white light.
After viewing the video recording, Judge Wolfe said he thought he saw a white light coming from the taillight of Bridges's vehicle, but that he was "not certain. "
However, there was other evidence that corroborated Officer Lacroix's testimony. Judge Wolfe found, after observing the quality of the video recording, that Officer Lacroix had been able to observe events more clearly than what was recorded on the video. Lacroix testified that he pulled Bridges over solely because of the damaged taillight and that he had not seen any erratic driving. Lacroix activated his in-car video camera before he initiated the stop. When he approached Bridges's vehicle, he observed that there was a hole in the plastic covering of the taillight. Bridges admitted in his testimony that his vehicle's taillight was damaged and that he had repaired it with tape. This evidence undercuts Bridges's claim that Officer Lacroix fabricated his testimony as to why he had stopped Bridges's vehicle.
As we explained above, it was Judge Wolfe's role, as the trier of fact, to resolve any conflicts and inconsistencies in the evidence. As an appellate court, our role is to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the district court's ruling. Viewed in that light, the evidence amply supports Judge Wolfe's finding that Lacroix stopped Bridges because he observed white light emitting from the taillight of his vehicle. Because this finding supports Judge Wolfe's conclusion that the officer had probable cause to stop Bridges for a traffic violation, we affirm the denial of Bridges's motion to suppress.
Bridges's conviction is AFFIRMED.
---------------Notes: AS 28. 35. 030(a). AS 28. 15. 291(a). 13 AAC 04. 025(a); 13 AAC 04. 145(f). See Brown v. State, 580 P.2d 1174 1176 (Alaska 1978); Rodgers v. State, 111 P.3d 358 359 (Alaska App. 2005); State v. Burke, 714 P.2d 374 377 & n. 2 (Alaska App. 1986); AS 28. 35. 225. Hensel v. State, 604 P.2d 222 235 (Alaska 1979). Geczy v. LaChappelle, 636 P.2d 604 606 n. 6 (Alaska 1981). Chandler v. State, 830 P.2d 789 792 (Alaska App. 1992). State v. Grier, 791 P.2d 627 631 (Alaska App. 1990) (citations omitted); see also Nease v. State, 105 P.3d 1145 1147 & n. 6 (Alaska App. 2005). McCoy v. State, 491 P.2d 127 130 (Alaska 1971). Grier, 791 P.2d at 632 n. 3. Hensel, 604 P.2d at 235. Brown, 580 P.2d at 1176. Notes: AS 28. 35. 030(a). AS 28. 15. 291(a). 13 AAC 04. 025(a); 13 AAC 04. 145(f). See Brown v. State, 580 P.2d 1174 1176 (Alaska 1978); Rodgers v. State, 111 P.3d 358 359 (Alaska App. 2005); State v. Burke, 714 P.2d 374 377 & n. 2 (Alaska App. 1986); AS 28. 35. 225. Hensel v. State, 604 P.2d 222 235 (Alaska 1979). Geczy v. LaChappelle, 636 P.2d 604 606 n. 6 (Alaska 1981). Chandler v. State, 830 P.2d 789 792 (Alaska App. 1992). State v. Grier, 791 P.2d 627 631 (Alaska App. 1990) (citations omitted); see also Nease v. State, 105 P.3d 1145 1147 & n. 6 (Alaska App. 2005). McCoy v. State, 491 P.2d 127 130 (Alaska 1971). Grier, 791 P.2d at 632 n. 3. Hensel, 604 P.2d at 235. Brown, 580 P.2d at 1176.
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