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State v. Phelps

Supreme Court of North Dakota

June 7, 2017

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
Michael A. Phelps, Defendant and Appellant

         Appeal from the District Court of Morton County, South Central Judicial District, the Honorable Bruce A. Romanick, Judge.

          Brian D. Grosinger (argued) and Gabrielle J. Goter (on brief), Assistant State's Attorneys, Mandan, ND, for plaintiff and appellee.

          Michael R. Hoffman, Bismarck, ND, for defendant and appellant.


          Kapsner, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Michael Phelps appeals from a criminal judgment entered after he conditionally pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver after the district court denied his motion to suppress evidence. Phelps argues the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence because the traffic stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion and the dog sniff unreasonably extended the traffic stop. We conclude: 1) the district court did not err in finding the officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop; and 2) the dog sniff conducted on Phelps' vehicle did not require independent reasonable suspicion because it occurred contemporaneously to the completion of duties related to the initial traffic stop. We affirm the criminal judgment.


         [¶ 2] On September 16, 2015, a law enforcement officer executed a traffic stop on Phelps in Morton County. The officer went to the door of the vehicle and spoke with Phelps, mentioned Phelps' boat trailer was without a plate, and obtained his license and registration. As the officer returned to his vehicle to run Phelps' information, Sergeant Sass arrived on scene with a K-9 unit. The officer exited the vehicle, Phelps exited his, and met the officer at the back of the boat trailer. The two spoke, and Sergeant Sass ran the drug dog around Phelps' vehicle. The dog indicated the presence of drugs. The officers conducted a search of the vehicle and discovered what appeared to be methamphetamine packaged in individual bags. Phelps was arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver. Phelps moved to suppress evidence, and the district court held a hearing. In his motion to suppress, Phelps argued there was no legal basis for the traffic stop, and the stop was unreasonably extended after the purpose for the stop was concluded.

         [¶ 3] At the hearing, the district court heard testimony from the arresting officer, the officer who conducted the K-9 sniff, and Phelps. Phelps offered the arresting officer's in-car video of the traffic stop as an exhibit. Phelps argued the traffic stop was conducted on the basis of having no plate on his boat trailer, which does not constitute a violation of any traffic law. The arresting officer testified the stop was conducted because of the lack of plate and also for an inoperable passenger side brake light on the trailer. The arresting officer testified Phelps did not immediately pull over after the activation of the officer's emergency lights. The arresting officer testified he took Phelps' information in order to write a citation. Sergeant Sass testified he arrived on the scene of the traffic stop because narcotics task force officers informed him they wanted to conduct a K-9 sniff. Sergeant Sass testified he conducted the K-9 sniff, at which point the dog indicated the presence of drugs. At the hearing, Phelps argued he received one citation at the scene of the stop and one after he was already detained at the Morton County jail. Phelps argued this was significant because failure to display a license plate on his boat trailer is not a valid moving violation. Phelps argued the officer later came up with a faulty brake light on his trailer as an after-the-fact basis for the traffic stop.

         [¶ 4] The district court denied Phelps' motion to suppress evidence. The court found failure to display a license plate on the boat trailer did not constitute a moving violation. However, the court found, based upon review of the video, Phelps' trailer had a faulty brake light, which constituted a moving traffic violation supporting the traffic stop. The district court stated, "Even if the incorrect warning was issued at the scene, the Court has determined a legitimate traffic stop was initiated due to the faulty brake light. The faulty brake light stop allows for the investigative detention of Defendant and allows for the time to complete the traffic stop." The district court ultimately concluded, "a good traffic stop was initiated for the faulty brake light. During the process of the traffic stop the dog sniff provided sufficient reasonable suspicion to continue the investigative stop until the discovery of the controlled substance in the pickup and the arrest of the Defendant." Phelps entered a conditional guilty plea, and the district court entered a criminal judgment. Phelps filed a notice of appeal.


         [¶ 5] We review a district court's decision on a motion to suppress as follows:

[T]his Court defers to the district court's findings of fact and resolves conflicts in testimony in favor of affirmance. This Court will affirm a district court decision regarding a motion to suppress if there is sufficient competent evidence fairly capable of supporting the district court's findings, and the decision is not contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. Questions of law are fully reviewable on appeal, and whether a finding of fact meets a legal standard is a question of law.

State v. Knox, 2016 ND 15, ¶ 6, 873 N.W.2d 664 (citations omitted). "The Fourth Amendment guarantees 'the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.' Temporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a 'seizure' of 'persons' within the meaning of this provision." Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996). "[W]e have previously explained, 'traffic violations, even if considered common or minor, constitute prohibited conduct and, therefore, provide officers with requisite suspicion for ...

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