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State v. Stoll

Court of Appeals of Arizona, Second Division

May 23, 2016

The State of Arizona, Appellee,
Kyle Andrew Stoll, Appellant.

         Appeal from the Superior Court in Cochise County No. CR201300537 The Honorable James L. Conlogue, Judge

          Mark Brnovich, Arizona Attorney General Joseph T. Maziarz, Section Chief Counsel, Phoenix By Kathryn A. Damstra, Assistant Attorney General, Tucson Counsel for Appellee

          Thomas C. Holz, Bisbee Counsel for Appellant

          Judge Miller authored the opinion of the Court, in which Presiding Judge Vásquez and Chief Judge Eckerstrom concurred.


          MILLER, Judge:

         ¶1 Kyle Stoll was convicted of aggravated driving under the influence with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or more while his license was suspended, canceled, or revoked, and sentenced to four months' imprisonment followed by five years of supervised probation. He argues the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence obtained during the traffic stop, which was initiated because the light illuminating the license plate emitted white light visible from the rear of the vehicle. We conclude the officer misinterpreted the relevant statutes and the mistake of law was not objectively reasonable; therefore, the stop was not based on reasonable suspicion and the motion to suppress should have been granted. We vacate the conviction and sentence, and we remand for further proceedings.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         ¶2 In reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, we consider only the evidence presented at the suppression hearing and view it in the light most favorable to sustaining the trial court's ruling. See State v. Moreno, 236 Ariz. 347, 2, 340 P.3d 426, 428 (App. 2014). One evening in January 2013, two Cochise County sheriff's deputies were in a convenience store when they smelled the odor of burnt marijuana in the proximity of two men, later identified as Stoll and his friend. When the two men left the store and began to drive away in an SUV, the deputies followed and stopped the SUV one or two blocks away. The deputies observed white light from the lamp illuminating the license plate. It was a standard lamp, properly functioning, and operated in the usual manner. Nothing in the record indicates Stoll was issued a traffic citation. At the suppression hearing, however, the deputies testified they believed white light visible from a vehicle moving forward violated A.R.S. § 28-931(C).[1]

         ¶3 During the stop, the deputies detected the odor of alcohol, and observed that Stoll had bloodshot watery eyes and a flushed face. A horizontal gaze nystagmus test suggested the presence of alcohol in his system, and a breathalyzer test measured his alcohol concentration at .165. The deputies arrested him.

         ¶4 Stoll moved to suppress the evidence seized during the stop, arguing that the deputies' belief about white light from a license plate light was not supported by any statute. The state contended the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion because the SUV's license plate lamp, though functioning properly and apparently as designed, did not have an opaque casing entirely shrouding its back, and thus emitted some white light to the rear of the vehicle. After taking the matter under advisement, the trial court granted Stoll's motion to suppress. Its ruling that the license plate light did not violate Title 28 was based on specific facts:

There was no evidence that the [license plate] light created any public safety or community welfare concern. There was no evidence that the lamp obstructed the vision of other drivers or that other drivers might confuse the license lamp with a head light or backup light. The white lamp was simply "visible" from the rear of Defendant's vehicle.

         ¶5 In December 2014, shortly after the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Heien v. North Carolina, ___U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 530 (2014), the state moved for reconsideration of the suppression ruling, arguing the deputies made a reasonable mistake of law in interpreting § 28-931 (C) when they concluded Stoll's license plate lamp violated state law. Stoll contended the statute clearly and unambiguously compels a conclusion that the lamp was not in violation, and the deputies' interpretation of the statute was not objectively reasonable. At the hearing on the motion for reconsideration, a patrol commander from the sheriff's department testified that the department had trained deputies for years that any rear-facing white light on a vehicle other than a backup lamp violated § 28-931 (C). The trial court granted the state's motion to reconsider, vacating its earlier suppression order. The court found "the Officer was objectively reasonable in applying the laws [as] he believed [them] to be at the time, particularly given his training in the Department."

         ¶6 Stoll filed a motion to reconsider the new ruling, which the trial court denied. A bench trial followed, and Stoll now appeals the resulting conviction and sentence. Our jurisdiction is pursuant to A.R.S. §§ 13-4031 and 13-4033(A).

         Whether the License Plate Light ...

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