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People v. Garrett Burnett

Supreme Court of Colorado, En Banc

January 14, 2019

The People of the State of Colorado, Plaintiff-Appellant
v.
Devon Paul Garrett Burnett, Defendant-Appellee

          Interlocutory Appeal from the District Court El Paso County District Court Case No. 18CR950 Honorable Gregory R. Werner, Judge Honorable Gilbert A. Martinez, Senior Judge

          Attorneys for Plaintiff-Appellant: Daniel H. May, District Attorney, Fourth Judicial District Andrew Lower, Deputy District Attorney Doyle Baker, Senior Deputy District Attorney Colorado Springs, Colorado

          Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee: Megan A. Ring, Public Defender Max E. Shapiro, Deputy Public Defender Colorado Springs, Colorado

          HOOD JUSTICE

         ¶1 While driving down a highway, a Colorado State Patrol (CSP) trooper observed another driver flash her turn signal twice over a distance of less than 200 feet and then change lanes. Apparently believing he'd just witnessed an illegal lane change, the trooper stopped the car in which there was a passenger-the defendant, Devon Burnett.

         ¶2 A subsequent search of the car revealed a handgun, drug paraphernalia, and suspected methamphetamine. As a result, Burnett was charged with multiple offenses, including possession with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance and possession of a weapon by a previous offender.

         ¶3 Burnett filed a motion to suppress the evidence found during the search that flowed from the stop for the allegedly illegal lane change. He argued that the statute governing turning movements and required signals, section 42-4-903(2), C.R.S. (2018), doesn't require a person to signal for a minimum distance before changing lanes; therefore, the trooper did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the car. The trial court agreed and suppressed the fruits of the search.

         ¶4 The People filed this interlocutory appeal, contending in part that the trooper at worst made an objectively reasonable mistake of law when he concluded that changing lanes on the highway without signaling for 200 feet violated section 42-4-903(2). Consequently, the People argue that the trooper had reasonable suspicion to stop the car.

         ¶5 We conclude that the trooper's construction of section 42-4-903(2) was objectively unreasonable. The plain language of the statute clearly distinguishes between turns and lane changes, and the statute does not require a driver to signal continuously for any set distance before changing lanes on a highway-it only requires that a driver use a signal before changing lanes. Therefore, we affirm the trial court's suppression order.

         I. Facts and Procedural History [1]

         ¶6 Burnett was a passenger in a black sedan traveling along Highway 21 in El Paso County. Trooper Stephen Wall watched as the driver engaged the sedan's turn signal, allowed it to flash twice for less than 200 feet, and then changed lanes. Trooper Wall stopped the sedan.

         ¶7 As the sedan pulled over, Trooper Wall noticed the passenger moving around in a manner that suggested he could be "attempt[ing] to conceal contraband or produce a weapon." Concerned for his safety, Trooper Wall radioed for cover. When Trooper Wall approached the car, he noticed that Burnett looked unusually nervous. This seemed strange to Trooper Wall, considering Burnett was only the passenger and not the subject of the stop. In addition to asking for the driver's identification, Trooper Wall asked Burnett to show the trooper his identification. Burnett complied.

         ¶8 After dispatch advised Trooper Wall that Burnett was subject to a restraining order that prohibited Burnett from possessing weapons, another trooper observed a handgun magazine on the passenger side of the car. Law enforcement personnel then searched the entire passenger compartment. The troopers found a handgun underneath Burnett's seat, along with a substance believed to be methamphetamine, drug paraphernalia, baggies, and a scale. CSP arrested Burnett, who was later charged with multiple offenses, including possession with intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance and possession of a weapon by a previous offender.

         ¶9 Burnett moved to suppress all evidence resulting from the stop, claiming Trooper Wall had no reasonable suspicion to believe a traffic violation had occurred under section 42-4-903(2). The trial court granted the motion to suppress, concluding that section 42-4-903(2) does not require a car to signal continuously for 200 feet before changing lanes on a highway-"that only applies to turning right or left."

         ¶10 The People filed a motion to reconsider the suppression order, arguing that the trooper made a reasonable mistake of law because section 42-4-903(2) can be read as applying to lane changes. They contended that under Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530 (2014), this objectively reasonable mistake of law provided reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop. The trial court denied the motion to reconsider, without explicitly addressing the reasonable mistake of law argument under Heien.[2]

         ¶11 The People filed this interlocutory appeal.

         II. Analysis

         ¶12 We first review relevant Fourth Amendment principles, including precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court stating that an objectively reasonable mistake of law can support a finding that there was reasonable suspicion to justify an investigatory stop. We then address section 42-4-903 and determine that its plain language only requires that a driver signal before changing lanes-it does not require a driver to signal continuously for any set distance before changing lanes. Because the text of the statute is clear, we conclude that the trooper's construction of section 42-4-903 was not objectively reasonable.

         A. Standard of Review

         ¶13 A trial court's order suppressing evidence presents a mixed question of law and fact. People v. Chavez-Barragan, 2016 CO 16, ¶ 9, 365 P.3d 981, 983. "We accept the trial court's findings of historic fact if those findings are supported by competent evidence, but we assess the legal significance of the facts de novo." Id. We also review "[r]elated issues of statutory construction . . . de novo." Id.

         B. The Fourth Amendment and Mistakes of Law

         ¶14 The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures.[3] U.S. Const. amend. IV. "A traffic stop for a suspected violation of law is a 'seizure' of the occupants of the vehicle and therefore must be conducted in accordance with the Fourth Amendment." Heien, 135 S.Ct. at 536. As relevant here, a brief, investigatory traffic stop is constitutional "when the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity 'has occurred, is taking place, or is about to take place.'" Chavez-Barragan, ¶ 10, 365 P.3d at 983 (quoting People v. Ingram, 984 P.2d 597, 603 (Colo. 1999)). An officer may thus stop a vehicle if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a traffic violation.

         ¶15 Reasonable suspicion may exist even if an officer is mistaken about a critical fact or about the proper interpretation of a statute. However, "[t]he Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes-whether of fact or of law-must be objectively reasonable." Heien, 135 S.Ct. at 539.

         ¶16 In Heien, the Supreme Court held that an officer's mistaken interpretation of a traffic law was reasonable and, thus, could still justify a stop under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 534. At issue was a North Carolina statute that required drivers to have at least one working brake light. Id. at 535. The officer pulled a vehicle over for failing to have two working brake lights because he incorrectly believed that was what the statute required. Id. at 534. Because the language of the statute was unclear and had not been previously interpreted by North Carolina's appellate courts, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the officer's mistaken interpretation was reasonable and could provide reasonable suspicion to justify the stop under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 540. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted "[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them 'fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community's protection.'" Id. at 536 (quoting Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 176 (1949)); see also Casillas v. People, 2018 CO 78M, ¶¶ 44-45, 427 P.3d 804, 815 (Samour, J., dissenting) (discussing the rationale behind the Heien majority's holding). Heien thus held that a mistaken interpretation of the law can still support a finding of reasonable suspicion if the mistake is objectively reasonable. Heien, 135 S.Ct. at 539. As a corollary of this holding, courts should not consider the "subjective understanding of the particular officer involved."[4] Id.

         ¶17 With these Fourth Amendment principles in mind, we now examine ...


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