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State v. Rodriguez

Supreme Court of Nebraska

August 29, 2014

STATE OF NEBRASKA, APPELLEE,
v.
LUCIO A. RODRIGUEZ III, APPELLANT

Page 706

Petition for further review from the Court of Appeals, INBODY, Chief Judge, and MOORE and RIEDMANN, Judges, on appeal thereto from the District Court for Scotts Bluff County, LEO DOBROVOLNY, Judge.

Bell Island, of Island & Huff, P.C., L.L.O., for appellant.

Jon Bruning, Attorney General, and Kimberly A. Klein for appellee.

HEAVICAN, C.J., WRIGHT, CONNOLLY, STEPHAN, MCCORMACK, MILLER-LERMAN, and CASSEL, JJ. HEAVICAN, C.J., dissenting.

OPINION

Page 707

[288 Neb. 879] Miller-Lerman, J.

I. NATURE OF CASE

Lucio A. Rodriguez III appealed his conviction in the district court for Scotts Bluff County for driving under the influence (DUI) with a concentration of more than .15 of 1 gram of alcohol per 210 liters of breath, third offense, to the Nebraska Court of Appeals. He claimed that the district court erred when it (1) overruled his motion to suppress evidence obtained from a traffic stop that he asserted was based on an anonymous tip without corroboration and (2) overruled his motion for a mistrial based on the State's failure to dismiss another pending charge which the State knew prior to trial it could not prove. The Court of Appeals affirmed Rodriguez' conviction and sentence. We granted his petition for further review. We reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand the cause to the Court of Appeals with directions to reverse Rodriguez' DUI conviction and remand the cause to the district court for a new trial.

II. STATEMENT OF FACTS

In its memorandum opinion, the Court of Appeals described the facts of this case for which we find support in the record as follows:

[288 Neb. 880] On April 28, 2012, the Scotts Bluff County 911 emergency dispatch center received notification of a possible disturbance near a rental car business. When the dispatch center communicated this information to Officer Aaron Kleensang, the dispatcher noted that the caller stated that he had been pushed out of a moving vehicle. The dispatcher also stated that the caller identified the vehicle as a green GMC Envoy and stated that this vehicle left the area heading westbound on Highway 26.

At the time Kleensang received the dispatch, he was near the vicinity of the reported activity. [He did not see the caller at the rental car business, however, he soon] observed a vehicle matching the description he received from the dispatch center traveling westbound on Highway 26. Kleensang made two turns, followed the vehicle onto 17th Avenue and 20th Street, and observed it stop on its own. The vehicle moved to the side of the road and parked before Kleensang activated his patrol car's emergency lights. Kleensang testified that he activated the lights to signal the driver that Kleensang wanted to talk with him.

Kleensang approached the driver and began to question him about the reported disturbance. Rodriguez was identified as the driver. Kleensang had other officers in the area make contact with

Page 708

the caller, and the caller was eventually brought to a nearby location. No other evidence was adduced about the caller, and there was apparently no further action taken in regard to the disturbance. While discussing the reported disturbance with Rodriguez, Kleensang made several initial observations. He detected a strong odor of alcohol and noticed that Rodriguez had a flushed face, slurred speech, and bloodshot, watery eyes. After administering three field sobriety tests, Kleensang believed Rodriguez was heavily intoxicated. Kleensang arrested Rodriguez following a preliminary breath test and transported him to the detention center in Scotts[b]luff, Nebraska. Rodriguez then submitted to a " DataMaster" test at the detention center, and his breath tested at .226 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.

[288 Neb. 881] During the booking process, Rodriguez' wallet was taken from him and inventoried. Kleensang testified this is standard procedure whenever he takes someone to jail. When the wallet was opened, two clear plastic baggies containing apparent controlled substances were discovered at the bottom. Preliminary tests were conducted on these substances at the jail. Subsequent tests at the Nebraska State Patrol crime laboratory revealed that one substance was cocaine and that the other substance was not a controlled substance.

On May 10, 2012, the State filed an information charging Rodriguez with DUI with a blood alcohol level greater than .15, third offense; possession of methamphetamine; and possession of cocaine. Rodriguez moved to suppress any evidence gathered from the stop and subsequent search, contending that the stop was not based on reasonable and articulable suspicion that a crime had been committed or was about to be committed.

The district court overruled the motion to suppress. In its order, the court noted that the stop was justified under two separate analyses. First, the court concluded that the stop could be considered to be a " 'first-tier' contact" for which no Fourth Amendment protections apply. The court found Kleensang had not used emergency lights or a siren to cause Rodriguez to stop. Thus, the court determined that a reasonable person would not have believed he was required to stop or that his movement was impeded in any way before Kleensang activated his patrol car's emergency lights. Second, analyzing the stop as a " 'tier-two'" encounter, the court determined reasonable suspicion existed for the stop because Kleensang had corroborated the information from the dispatch center.

On December 18, 2012, the case proceeded to a jury trial. Despite having received laboratory reports demonstrating that Rodriguez did not possess methamphetamine on the night he was arrested, the State did not dismiss the charge in advance of trial. Rodriguez' motions for mistrial based on this failure to dismiss were denied, but the court

[288 Neb. 882] entered a directed verdict in his favor on the possession of methamphetamine charge at the close of the State's evidence. The jury convicted Rodriguez of DUI, but acquitted him of the possession of cocaine charge. The court sentenced Rodriguez to 60 days in jail and a term of probation, suspended his license for 5 years, and ordered him to pay court costs.

State v. Rodriguez, No. A-13-062, 2013 WL 6246792, *1-2 (Neb.App. Dec. 3, 2013) (selected for posting to court Web site).

Page 709

Rodriguez appealed his DUI conviction to the Court of Appeals. He claimed that the district court erred when it (1) analyzed the traffic stop as a first-tier police contact; (2) overruled his motion to suppress, despite a lack of corroboration of the anonymous tip; and (3) overruled his motion for a mistrial based on the State's failure to dismiss the methamphetamine charge.

The Court of Appeals affirmed Rodriguez' conviction and sentence. With regard to the assignment of error related to a first-tier police contact, the Court of Appeals noted that the State did little to challenge Rodriguez' argument that he was seized when Kleensang activated his patrol car's lights and that the contact was therefore a second-tier traffic stop requiring reasonable suspicion. The Court of Appeals determined that the State had conceded that the contact was a traffic stop and concluded that because the district court had alternatively concluded that there was reasonable suspicion to support a traffic stop, it was unnecessary for the Court of Appeals to address the first assignment of error related to a first-tier stop.

With regard to whether there was reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop, the Court of Appeals cited Nebraska precedent and concluded that the content of the dispatch and Kleensang's observations consistent with the dispatch gave Kleensang a reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop.

With regard to Rodriguez' motion for a mistrial, the Court of Appeals disapproved of the county attorney's failure to dismiss the methamphetamine charge prior to trial and stated that such conduct was " improper in the course of conducting a fair trial because it may tend to expose a jury to irrelevant and [288 Neb. 883] prejudicial matters." State v. Rodriguez, 2013 WL 6246792 at *5. Although it disapproved of the prosecution's conduct, the Court of Appeals determined that such conduct did not reach a level requiring the declaration of a mistrial. The Court of Appeals concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion when it overruled Rodriguez' motion for a mistrial. The Court of Appeals affirmed. Id.

We granted Rodriguez' petition for further review.

III. ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

On further review, Rodriguez claims, restated, that the Court of Appeals erred when it (1) determined that the district court did not err when it overruled Rodriguez' motion to suppress and (2) determined that the district court did not err when it overruled his motion for a mistrial based on the State's pursuit of the methamphetamine charge after it knew it could not prove the charge.

IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress based on a claimed violation of the Fourth Amendment, we apply a two-part standard of review. Regarding historical facts, we review the trial court's findings for clear error. But whether those facts trigger or violate Fourth Amendment protections is a question of law that we review independently of the trial court's determination. State v. Schuller, 287 Neb. 500, 843 N.W.2d 626 (2014).

V. ANALYSIS

1. Court of Appeals Erred When It Affirmed Overruling of Rodriguez' Motion ...


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