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Hughes v. State

Supreme Court of Georgia

March 16, 2015

HUGHES
v.
THE STATE

Certiorari to the Court of Appeals of Georgia -- 325 Ga.App. 429.

Allen M. Trapp, Jr., Hagler, Jackson & Walters, Richard C. Hagler, for appellant.

Julia Fessenden Slater, District Attorney, Wesley A. Lambertus, Assistant District Attorney, for appellee.

BLACKWELL, Justice. All the Justices concur.

OPINION

Page 637

Blackwell, Justice.

Under OCGA § 40-5-55 (a), a law enforcement officer may insist that a driver involved in a traffic accident resulting in serious injuries or fatalities submit to a test of his blood for the presence of alcohol and drugs, so long as the officer has probable cause to believe that the driver was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.[1] Hough v. State, 279 Ga. 711, 713 (1) (a) (620 S.E.2d 380) (2005). Following a fatal accident in June 2011, officers insisted that Jack Hughes -- the driver of a vehicle involved in that accident -- submit to a blood test. Hughes did so, but he later was indicted for several crimes in connection with the accident,[2] and he then moved to

Page 638

suppress the results of the blood test, asserting that the officers were without probable cause to believe that he had been driving under the influence. The trial court granted his motion, and the State appealed. In State v. Hughes, 325 Ga.App. 429 (750 S.E.2d 789) (2013), the Court of Appeals reversed, although three of its judges dissented. We issued a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals, and although we find that the Court of Appeals applied the wrong standard of review, we conclude that it nevertheless reached the right result. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

[296 Ga. 745] 1. We start with the standard of review. As the trial court considered the motion to suppress, it heard from three law enforcement officers, each of whom testified about the things he saw and heard at the scene of the accident, things that eventually led the officers to insist that Hughes submit to a blood test. Hughes presented no evidence of his own at the evidentiary hearing, although his lawyers did subject the officers to cross-examination. In its order granting the motion to suppress, the trial court expressly made findings about many -- but not all -- of the facts to which the officers had testified. By these findings, the trial court accepted several facts to which the officers had testified, including that they observed at the scene of the accident that Hughes seemed drowsy, that he may have been unsteady on his feet, that his eyes were red and glassy, and that he had a number of pills on his person. The trial court did not expressly reject any fact to which the officers had testified, and the trial court made no explicit findings about their credibility. Nevertheless, there were facts to which the officers had testified about which the trial court said nothing at all. For instance, one officer testified that Hughes had dilated pupils, but the trial court did not mention dilation in its order. Likewise, one officer testified that Hughes was hesitant in response to questions from the officers, but the trial court said nothing in its order about hesitation or evasiveness.

On appeal, a majority of the Court of Appeals declined to limit its analysis to the facts expressly found by the trial court, and the majority undertook instead to decide for itself what additional facts might be gleaned from the evidentiary record. See Hughes, 325 Ga.App. at 430-431. The majority did so, it explained, because the testimony of the officers about such additional facts was not disputed by any affirmative evidence to the contrary, and the trial court had not explicitly rejected those additional facts. See id. at 432. The majority admitted that the trial court would have been entitled to reject the testimony of the officers on credibility grounds, even in the absence of other evidence contradicting their testimony, but the majority noted that the trial court had said nothing in its order about credibility. See id. In separate dissents, Judge Miller and Presiding Judge Barnes argued that the majority had not been deferential enough to the prerogative of the trial court to find the disputed facts on a motion to suppress.[3] See id. at 434-435 (Miller, J., dissenting); id. at 439 (Barnes, P. J., dissenting). About the standard of review, the dissenting judges were right.

[296 Ga. 746] When the facts material to a motion to suppress are disputed, it generally is for the trial judge to resolve those disputes and determine the material facts. See Tate v. State, 264 Ga. 53, 54 (1) (440 S.E.2d 646) (1994) (" [W]hen a motion to suppress is heard by the trial judge, that judge sits as the trier of facts." ). This principle is a settled one, and this Court has identified three corollaries of the principle, which limit the scope of review in appeals from a grant or denial of a motion to suppress in which the trial court has made express findings of disputed facts.[4] First, an appellate court generally

Page 639

must accept those findings unless they are clearly erroneous.[5]State v. Hargis, 294 Ga. 818, 823 (2), n. 12 (756 S.E.2d 529) (2014). Second, an appellate court must construe the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to the factual findings and judgment of the trial court. Brown v. State, 293 Ga. 787, 803 (3) (b) (2) (750 S.E.2d 148) (2013). And third, an appellate court generally must limit its consideration of the disputed facts to those expressly found by the trial court.[6] See Miller v. State, 288 Ga. 286, 287 (1) (702 S.E.2d 888) (2010) (" [W]e ...


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