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State v. Cartwright

Court of Appeals of Georgia

September 24, 2014

THE STATE
v.
CARTWRIGHT

Motion to suppress. Cobb State Court. Before Judge Clayton.

Barry E. Morgan, Solicitor-General, Tad F. Keller, Dana J. Norman, Assistant Solicitors-General, for appellant.

Justin I. Spizman, for appellee.

BARNES, Presiding Judge. Boggs and Branch, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 176

Barnes, Presiding Judge.

The State appeals from the order of the trial court granting Allison Cartwright's motion to suppress following her arrest for DUI. It contends that the trial court erred in finding that OCGA § 40-8-25 (b) did not apply to a nonfunctioning center brake light. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

[T]hree fundamental principles ... must be followed when conducting an appellate review of a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress. First, when a motion to suppress is heard by the trial judge, that judge sits as the trier of facts. The trial judge hears the evidence, and his findings based upon conflicting evidence are analogous to the verdict of a jury and should not be disturbed by a reviewing court if there is any evidence to support them. Second, the trial court's decision with regard to questions of fact and credibility must be accepted unless clearly erroneous. Third, the reviewing court must construe the evidence most favorably to the upholding of the trial court's findings and judgment. These principles apply equally whether the trial court ruled in favor of the State or the defendant.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Brown v. State, 293 Ga. 787, 802-803 (3) (b) (2) (750 S.E.2d 148) (2013). To the extent that " the evidence [329 Ga.App. 155] at a suppression hearing is uncontroverted and the credibility of witnesses is not in question, we conduct a de novo review of the trial court's application of the law to the undisputed facts." Jones v. State, 291 Ga. 35, 36-37 (1) (727 S.E.2d 456) (2012). To that end, we owe " no deference to the trial court's conclusions of law" and are instead " free to apply anew the legal principles to the facts." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Martin v. State, 316 Ga.App. 220, 220 (729 S.E.2d 437) (2012).

The facts are essentially undisputed and demonstrate that on the morning of June 26, 2013, a patrol officer with the Cobb County police observed that when Cartwright stopped for a red signal light, the center light located " at the top of the back window ... under the roof" was not working. Based on his observation, the officer initiated a stop of Cartwright's vehicle, and upon noticing the odor of alcohol on Cartwright's breath and conducting field sobriety tests, subsequently arrested her for DUI. She was also charged with violating OCGA § 40-8-25 (b), which provides, in pertinent part, that " [i]f a motor vehicle is manufactured with two brake lights, both must be operational."

Cartwright filed a motion to suppress, contending that the stop was illegal because the officer lacked articulable suspicion for the stop. Specifically, she argued that she had not committed any traffic violations before she was stopped because her two brake lights were functioning. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, the officer was the sole witness. He testified that he observed Cartwright's 2002 BMW 325i

without an operational center brake light. ... On 1990 vehicles and newer, coming out of the factory, they actually have three operational brake lights. One on either passenger side, driver side, and one in the center window, which allows other motorists to view the vehicle when it is stopping. ... [The center light is] a rectangular red light in the center of the rear window of the vehicle.

He further testified that he observed the " two lights on the rear of the vehicle ... light up and the center one would not," and that he had stopped Cartwright because the center brake light was not operational.

On cross-examination, the officer agreed that OCGA ยง 40-8-25 (b) only states that if a vehicle has two brake lights then both must be operational, and that Cartwright's BMW had two functional brake lights when he pulled her over. On redirect, the officer agreed that he could have charged Cartwright ...


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