Wyoming Supreme Court Rules Officer’s Conduct Prior to Traffic Stop for Traffic Violation Rendered Stop Unreasonable
by Anthony W. Accurso
The Supreme Court of Wyoming held that a state trooper’s actions prior to observing a traffic violation rendered the traffic stop unreasonable under both the Wyoming and U.S. Constitutions.
On August 28th, 2018, Wyoming Highway Patrol Trooper Shane Carraher observed a black Nissan Rogue traveling eastbound on Interstate 80. Though he did not witness the driver commit any traffic violations or otherwise observe any violation of law, he decided to catch up to the Rogue. This involved driving at speeds in excess of 100 mph in a zone where the posted speed limit is 75 mph.
Carraher eventually caught up to the Rogue and positioned his vehicle alongside it, boxing it in between the shoulder and two semi-trucks, one in front and one in back of the Rogue. Carraher calculated the Rogue’s distance from the lead semi at “approximately 1.2 seconds behind” it. As the lead semi prepared to exit onto an off-ramp, it applied its brakes, but the driver of the Rogue didn’t initially brake with the semi, reducing the following distance even farther. Wyoming statute § 31-5-210(a) requires drivers to maintain a “reasonable and prudent” following distance, often interpreted as at least two seconds of following distance. Robinson v. State, 454 P.3d 149 (Wyo. 2019).
Upon witnessing this traffic infraction, Carraher initiated a traffic stop of the Rogue. After speaking with the driver, Angeliah Busch, Carraher determined the vehicle was a rental that was overdue and traveling in a direction opposite from the city where it was to be returned. Carraher then left Busch in front of his patrol car while he interviewed the passenger, Joshua Levenson, who “offered unsolicited information about their travel plans” – information that was contradicted during a follow-up conversation with Busch.
Carraher called for a drug-detection dog, which eventually resulted in the officers locating 42 pounds of marijuana in the vehicle. Both Levenson and Busch were indicted for felony possession and intent to deliver a controlled substance.
Levenson filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence gathered during the traffic stop, arguing that the initial traffic stop was unreasonable and in violation of both the state and federal Constitutions and that the stop was pretextual and thus prohibited by the state Constitution. The district court denied his motion, finding the traffic violation justified the stop, regardless of Carraher’s subjective intent or actions, and that pretextual traffic stops do not violate either the state or federal Constitutions.
Levenson entered a conditional guilty plea in which he preserved his right to appeal the suppression issue. The court sentenced him to 12 to 15 months in prison, and he appealed.
The Court began its discussion by stating that when a party raises a state constitutional claim and provides proper argument on appeal, the state claim takes primacy and thus the claim is first analyzed under the state Constitution, even if a federal constitutional claim is also made. Vasquez v. State, 990 P.2d 476 (Wyo. 1999). It also noted that although Article 1, § 4 of the Wyoming Constitution is worded similarly to the Fourth Amendment, the state provision “provides greater protection than the federal constitution when dealing with pretextual stops.” See O’Boyle v. State, 117 P.3d 401 (Wyo. 2005). Nevertheless, the Court determined that the result is the same in this case under both governing provisions.
The Court explained that under Wyoming law whether an initial traffic stop is constitutional depends on if it was reasonable under all the circumstances. Klomliam v. State, 315 P.3d 665 (Wyo. 2014). Wyoming courts “objectively analyze the surrounding facts and circumstances to determine whether the officer was justified in making the stop.” Dods v. State, 240 P.3d 1208 (Wyo. 2010). The officer’s subjective intent doesn’t invalidate an otherwise the lawful traffic stop. Pier v. State, 432 P.3d 890 (Wyo. 2019). But the Court clarified that such subjective intent is one of the factors to consider when determining whether the traffic stop was lawful. Courts also consider the officer’s own conduct prior to the traffic stop, according to the Court. Simmons v. State, 473 P.3d 1259 (Wyo. 2020).
After reviewing Carraher’s dash cam footage of events prior to initiating the traffic stop, the Court concluded that the traffic stop was unreasonable under Article 1, § 4 of the Wyoming Constitution.
The Court stated that Carraher himself created the situation that led to the alleged traffic violation by the driver of the Rogue. Without observing any violation of law, Carraher chased the Rogue, at times reaching speeds of up to 111 mph – breaking the law himself without ever observing a violation of the law, the Court chided. As he approached from behind at a high rate of speed, the driver of the Rogue moved to the righthand lane in between the two semi-trucks. Carraher then positioned his vehicle next to the Rogue, thereby trapping it between the trucks as they approached a busy interchange. Thus, under an all-circumstances analysis of the facts of this case, the Court held that Carraher’s “objective justification for a traffic violation was negated, and the initial traffic stop was” unconstitutional. The Court added that the result is the same under the Fourth Amendment.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s denial of Levenson’s motion to suppress. See: Levenson v. State, 508 P.3d 229 (Wyo. 2022).
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