HSC not suspicious on reasonable suspicion.

State v. Spillner (HSC December 24, 2007)

Background. After Spillner was pulled over for having illegally tinted windows, a police officer learned that he had no license or insurance. A week later the same police officer saw that Spillner didn’t fix the tinted windows and stopped him again. This time his girlfriend was driving. The car was still uninsured. About a week later, the same officer saw Spillner driving and stopped him a 3d time. Spillner was cited for driving w/o a license (HRS § 286-102) and being uninsured (HRS § 431:10C-104). Spillner filed a motion to suppress arguing the 3d stop was based on prior contact and that on the 3d stop there were no reasonable grounds for the stop thus it was an illegal seizure; he lost and was found guilty as charged.

Booking Ongoing Criminal Activity w/in “Bookends”. A traffic stop is a seizure for constitutional purposes, and fruits of an illegal stop must be suppressed unless the State shows that the officer had a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. State v. Bohannon, 102 Hawai’i 228, 237, 74 P.3d 980, 989 (2003). Reasonable suspicion is an objective standard calling for a person of reasonable caution to believe that criminal activity is afoot. The court must determine a totality of the circumstances. Id.

The HSC recognized that these analyses turn on the slightest facts. Courts must distinguish an officer’s improper reliance on past cases of criminal activity from knowledge of an ongoing criminal activity.

Related to this distinction is the freshness of the officer’s information at the time of the seizure. The HSC established two “bookends” for timeliness. On one end is US v. Sandridge, 385 F.3d 1032 (6th Cir. 2004), where an officer pulled over the driver 22 days after he ran a license check on the driver. This is fine. The other end, the stale end, is US v. Laughrin, 438 F.3d 1245 (10th Cir. 2006), where an officer’s information on the driver was 22-weeks old and that w/o any other knowledge of criminal activity, the info was just too stale to warrant an objective reasonable suspicion. Here, the officer’s knowledge that Spillner had no license was one week old, well w/in the bookends.

The “bookends” analysis allows practitioners to comfortably determine whether the officer’s information was stale or not. The case law supporting these bookends also came from determinations of probable cause too. Perhaps, then, this applies to every kind of search and seizure analysis.

And though we now have some kind of measuring stick for practitioners, it makes the determination of ongoing criminal activity unclear. Perhaps it is quite possible for an officer’s information to be well w/in the bookends, but still have no basis of an ongoing criminal activity. This case does not dispose of the problem b/c the HSC cited cases in other jurisdictions that consider driving w/o a license an ongoing criminal activity. Still yet, the HSC cautions that in addition to these “bookends,” the court must consider the totality of the circumstances.

Weighing the Interests of Parties. The HSC then held that the interests advanced in traffic enforcement outweighed the nature and degree of intrusion by law enforcement. Obviously, the State has a legitimate interest in ensuring highway safety. To do this, it licenses its drivers. This outweighs Spillner’s privacy intrusion b/c driving is a privilege and because Spillner was not picked at random. It seems, then, that even if the officer had a reasonable suspicion or something more, the court must determine if the stop was reasonable by weighing the interests of the State against the protection of an individual’s privacy. Because the HSC did not find that the privacy protections outweighed the interests of the State, the HSC did not explain the remedy.

Justice Acoba’s Dissent. Much of Justice Acoba’s dissent pointed out that the cases relied upon by the majority hinged on suspended licenses rather than driving w/o one. In the suspended license case, an officer who runs a check, sees the suspended status, and observes the driver has concrete knowledge that the license has been suspended. This is different from the case here.

Justice Acoba also criticized the “bookends” b/c it takes away from the fact-intensive analysis. At the end of the day the court looks to the totality of the circumstances. Similarly, the majority’s analysis on the staleness or freshness of the officer’s information, “improperly elevates one factor above all others.” Finally, Justice Acoba opined that the weighing of the interests was “with all due respect, a makeweight effort to buttress [the majority’s] holding” and is unnecessary. The objective standard of reasonableness in the analysis already weighs the interests of the parties. To do it again is redundant.


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