Friday, February 11, 2011

DUI Appeal of the Day (DAD) - Improper Seizure at Closed Business

In Sosa v. Texas, Not Reported in S.W.3d, 2011 WL 346215 (Tex.App.-Texarkana), the defendant was convicted of DWI after her motion to suppress was denied. Her sole issue on appeal was the propriety of the investigative detention. While on patrol, the arresting officer (Hill) observed the defendant (Sosa) parked at the entrance to DC Self Storage in Marshall, Texas, at approximately 10:45 p.m. Based on Hill's experience when Hill's mother had previously rented a unit from that storage facility, Hill believed the normal business hours of the storage facility were from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Hill proceeded past the storage facility and stopped on the side of the road. When Sosa did not enter after thirty to forty seconds, Hill turned around, activated his lights, and pulled in “behind her.” While conversing with Sosa, Hill detected the odor of alcohol on Sosa's breath and noticed that Sosa's speech was slurred. Subsequent investigation determined Sosa to be intoxicated. The first issue that needed resolution was whether the contact was a 'seizure' or whether it was an 'encounter', as the term was used in the opinion. The court found that the use of the lights, the blocking of the defendant's vehicle, and the officer's admission that the defendant was not free to leave were enough to establish that the contact was a 'detention':

In this case, Hill's show of authority was sufficient to communicate to a reasonable person that he or she was not free to leave the scene. Hill testified Sosa was not free to leave. Although the classification of an interaction is determined based on an objective standard and, therefore, the police officer's subjective opinion is not determinative, Hill's subjective opinion can be evidence that a reasonable person would not feel free to terminate the interaction. See Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996) (reasonable suspicion evaluated from objective perspective). The manner in which Hill parked his vehicle and the use of overhead emergency lights suggest the interaction was an investigative detention. Since Sosa was parked in front of the storage facility's gate, the position of Hill's vehicle effectively prevented her vehicle from moving. Sosa's vehicle seems to have been trapped between the storage facility's gate and Hill's vehicle. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has considered the fact that a police officer “ ‘boxed in’ Appellee's parked truck” in determining whether a seizure had occurred. See State v. Garcia-Cantu, 253 S.W.3d 236, 246 n. 44 (Tex.Crim.App.2008) (concluding trial court did not err in concluding reasonable person would not feel free to leave).

Although “[a]ctivation of overhead lights on a police vehicle does not necessarily make an encounter non-consensual,” the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has noted: “The use of ‘blue flashers' or police emergency lights are frequently held sufficient to constitute a detention or seizure of a citizen, either in a parked or moving car.” Id. at 245 n. 43 (spotlight different from overhead lights); see Crain v. State, 315 S.W.3d 43, 52 (Tex.Crim.App.2010) (activation of overhead lights factor in concluding pedestrian was detained); Hudson v. State, 247 S.W.3d 780, 785 (Tex.App.-Amarillo 2008, no pet.) (activation of patrol car lights and police officer's order caused appellant to yield to show of authority); see Franks v. State, 241 S.W.3d 135, 142 (Tex.App.-Austin 2007, pet. ref'd) (mere activation of overhead lights at dark rest park was insufficient, by itself, to make initial interaction a detention). Franks is distinguishable in that, there, no evidence suggested that the position of the police car impeded Franks' ability to terminate the encounter. Franks, 241 S.W.3d at 142. Further, the police officer in Franks testified he activated the overhead lights to illuminate the rest area. Id. There is no evidence in this case that Hill activated his overhead lights to illuminate the storage facility's entry area. When asked whether the area “is fairly well lit,” Hill responded, “I'd say fairly. It's not as well lit as you get going on into town.”
Thereafter, the court then grappled with whether the detention was supported by reasonable suspicion. The State argued that the vehicle's remaining at the entrance of a closed business for 30-40 seconds, coupled with the officer's knowledge that thefts and break-ins had previously occurred there, gave rise to reasonable suspicion, and the court sub judice had agreed. However, the appellate court disagreed:

The noncriminal, not terribly unusual, nonrepetitive behavior observed in this case was insufficient to objectively support a belief that criminal activity was or soon would be afoot. The specific, articulable facts relied on by Hill are insufficient to create reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was occurring. All the facts indicate is that Sosa was present in front of a business late at night, after normal business hours, and that storage buildings are occasionally broken into. Hill failed to provide, under the totality of the circumstances, sufficient specific, articulable facts to create an objective manifestation that Sosa was, or was about to be, engaged in criminal activity. Hill's suspicion amounted to nothing more than a mere hunch. Deferring to the trial court's determination of historical facts, it was error to overrule Sosa's motion to suppress.

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