Thursday, March 17, 2011

DUI Appeal of the Day (DAD) - Improper stop - alleged broken headlight

In State of Missouri v. Williams, --- S.W.3d ----, 2011 WL 864943 (Mo.App. W.D.), the defendant challenged the basis for his vehicle being stopped. The officer claimed that, as he was travelling in the opposite direction, he observed the defendant's vehicle being operated with one of its headlights not illuminating. He then stopped the car, which led to the DUI arrest. The officer also acknowledged that he had had previous contact with the driver 3 hours earlier, in response to a domestic call. The officer's vehicle was equipped with a videotape machine. On the video, however, the trial judge determined that the both lights were in fact illuminated, and found that the stop was illegal. the State appealed.
On appeal, the State claimed that the video did not clearly establish that a headlight (as opposed to a parking light) was illuminated. In refusing to overrule the trial court's findings, the Missouri appeals court adopted the legal principles enunciated in Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699 (1996): ‘a reviewing court should take care both to review findings of historical fact only for clear error and to give due weight to inferences drawn from those facts by resident judges and local law enforcement officers.’
Citing such cases as United States v. Smart, 393 F.3d 767, 770 (8th Cir.2005), the State also argued that, even if both of Williams' headlights were functioning properly, the police officer's sincere - but mistaken - belief that the light was off could justify the stop. Rejecting that argument, the court stated:

"Even if this issue were preserved, however, it would not justify reversal. Here, Officer Dollens was travelling at medium speed, at night when headlights are most clearly visible, and on a road with no other oncoming traffic besides Williams' vehicle. The record does not reflect any environmental factors that could have contributed to Officer Dollens' mistaken belief, such as precipitation or the interference of other area lighting. Williams' vehicle passed relatively closely to Officer Dollens' patrol car, and from the dashboard video Officer Dollens had a clear and unobstructed view of both headlights of Williams' truck. In these circumstances, we would be hard pressed to conclude that Officer Dollens' mistaken belief as to whether Williams' passenger side headlight was operational was objectively reasonable."

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