by Anthony Accurso
The Supreme Court of Montana held that facts leading up to the traffic stop at issue do not amount to the particularized suspicion required to initiate a lawful stop under Montana law.
On the afternoon of January 14, 2017, Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Tyler Terrill observed Billy Clayton Reeves III exit a brewery, enter a vehicle, and proceed to drive out of the parking lot. Terrill arrived at a four-way stop just before Reeves, but he did not proceed despite having the right-of-way. Terrill claimed that the two made eye contact and that Reeves had a “deer-in-the-headlights” look. After about 8-10 seconds elapsed, Reeves activated his turn signal, waited another 2-4 seconds, and finally, proceeded to make a legal left-hand turn. Terrill then initiated a traffic stop, advising Reeves, “the reason I stopped you is that you didn’t use your turn signal before that intersection … you have to have it at least 100 feet before the intersection.”
Terrill stated that he detected the strong smell of alcohol as he approached the vehicle. Reeves refused field sobriety testing and a breathalyzer, whereupon Terrill took Reeves to a hospital for a blood draw. Testing determined his blood-alcohol content was twice the legal limit. Reeves was charged with Aggravated DUI -Third Offense in violation of Mont. Code Ann. § 61-8-465.
Reeves filed a motion to dismiss, arguing Terrill lacked particularized suspicion that Reeves was committing, had committed, or was about to commit an offense as required under § 46-5-401(1), MCA to initiate the traffic stop. The Justice Court granted his motion, but it was overturned on the State’s appeal to the Fourth Judicial District Court. Reeves was convicted following a nonjury trial and was granted certiorari by the Supreme Court regarding the decision to deny his suppression motion.
The Court stated that the “only issue is whether there was objective data available to Deputy Terrill” to constitute the particularized suspicion required to initiate the traffic stop of Reeves. The Court concluded there was not.
To justify a traffic stop under § 46-5-401, police must meet a two-prong test articulated in State v. Gopher, 631 P.2d 293 (Mont. 1981): the officer must show (1) objective data from which experienced law enforcement can make certain inferences and (2) a resulting suspicion that the occupant of a certain vehicle is or has been engaged in wrongdoing or was a witness to criminal activity. Quoting State v. Reynolds, 899 P.2d 540 (Mont. 1995), the Court reiterated, “Inarticulable hunches are not objective data that meet this burden, and traffic stops based on such are not justified.”
Terrill conceded that Reeves’ actions at the intersection did not constitute a traffic violation, so the traffic stop can’t be justified as a response to a violation of law. Nevertheless, according to the State, the totality of the circumstances support Terrill’s particularized suspicion, which include: (1) Reeves was leaving a brewery, (2) exhibited a “deer-in-the-headlights” look, (3) waited approximately 12 seconds before exiting the parking lot and making a turn, and (4) failed to activate turn signal in a timely manner.
The Court rejected the State’s argument, concluding that the facts don’t constitute particularized suspicion based upon “objective data.” Instead, Terrill’s suspicion was “based on guesswork or inarticulable hunches,” according to the Court. It admonished: “To hold otherwise would expose virtually any driver leaving a location where alcohol is sold or consumed—no matter the manner in which he or she is driving—to the burdens of unreasonable stops.”
Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the Fourth Judicial District Court, vacated Reeves’ conviction, and dismissed the charge with prejudice. See: State v. Reeves, 2019 MT 151 (2019).
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Related legal case
State v. Reeves
|Cite||2019 MT 151 (2019)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|