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Abercrombie v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

November 3, 2017

ABERCROMBIE
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, C. J., RAY, P. J., and SELF, J.

          Dillard, Chief Judge.

         David Abercrombie appeals from the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence, contending that the trial court should have granted the motion because (1) the officer who stopped him lacked reasonable, articulable suspicion to do so and (2) the officer did not make a reasonable mistake of law. For the reasons set forth infra, we reverse.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the trial court's ruling, [1] the evidence shows that on May 22, 2015, a law-enforcement officer passed Abercrombie's single-cab pickup truck while driving in the opposite direction and noticed that the vehicle lacked an interior rear view mirror. The officer then initiated a traffic stop and, upon making contact with Abercrombie at the vehicle, detected a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage. During the investigation that ensued (which included the administration of field-sobriety tests), [2] one of two officers saw in plain view inside Abercrombie's truck a pipe used to smoke marijuana and, upon a brief search, suspected marijuana. Thereafter, Abercrombie was arrested for possession of marijuana and drug-related objects. Then, during a more thorough contraband search of Abercrombie's vehicle, the officers discovered a methamphetamine pipe. The officers also found methamphetamine outside of, but close to, Abercrombie's vehicle.

         Abercrombie was subsequently indicted for possession of methamphetamine and drug-related objects. He moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that the stop of his vehicle was unconstitutional. The State argued at the suppression hearing that the stop was permissible because driving a vehicle that lacks an interior rearview mirror constitutes an equipment violation under OCGA § 40-8-7 and OCGA § 40-8-72. And indeed, the officer who stopped Abercrombie's vehicle testified that this was why he initiated the stop.

         In particular, the officer testified that his understanding of the law was that "anything the vehicle comes equipped with has to be in good working condition if it came from the manufacturer." And although he did not testify to the make, model, or year of Abercrombie's single-cab truck, the officer opined that "most, even the older cars, always come with a rearview mirror." The officer also testified that "[y]our rearview mirror is the only one that reflects distinctly for the actual rear of your vehicle, " and that side mirrors are only appropriate for box trucks and vehicles with cages (i.e., vehicles with an obstructed view). Then he immediately reiterated his understanding that "if it's a vehicle that comes equipped with a rearview mirror, it needs to be in good working condition." The officer also explained that relying upon side mirrors for a rear view makes it a "bit more difficult to notice what's behind you, " and therefore, "you always need to have a rearview mirror . . . so you can see directly behind your vehicle."

         The officer testified further that he frequently enforces equipment violations under OCGA § 40-8-7 because "anything your vehicle comes equipped with . . . we just want to bring it to their attention . . . ." He then later clarified, when confronted with the text of the statute, that his understanding of OCGA § 40-8-7 was that it required "if your vehicle is equipped [sic] then everything has to be in good working condition, " such that "[i]f the vehicle is equipped with a rearview mirror, then it needs to be equipped with it in good working condition." Thus, the officer testified that because he believed that Abercrombie's vehicle had originally been equipped with an interior rearview mirror but did not have one at the time the officer observed the vehicle on the road, Abercrombie was committing an equipment violation.

         Upon further questioning regarding OCGA § 40-8-72, the officer admitted that Abercrombie's truck had two side mirrors, and he testified that he understood the law to require that a vehicle have a mirror that reflects 200 feet to the rear and that it did not specify a type of mirror. But he then opined that "if you look up the definition of side mirrors, it's for your blind spots, things of that nature" and that the "rearview mirror is specifically to direct the reflection of rear [sic] of your vehicle." And, once again, the officer testified that "they're all equipped with it" and that the only vehicles he had observed without an interior rearview mirror were box trucks or "something that wouldn't even make sense if you had a rearview mirror because you are not going to see to the rearview anyway[.]" He concluded, "that's where I think that Code Section puts in there that your two side mirrors would suffice if your vehicle is like a commercial vehicle, I think."

         After hearing the officer's testimony, as well as argument from Abercrombie and the State, the trial court agreed with the State's argument regarding an equipment violation but additionally found that even if the lack of an interior rearview mirror was not an equipment violation under the law, the officer had acted in good faith when he initiated the stop. Accordingly, the trial court denied the motion to suppress but also issued a certificate of immediate review. We then granted Abercrombie's application for an interlocutory appeal.

         When we consider a trial court's denial of a motion to suppress, we construe the evidence in favor of the court's ruling, "and we review de novo the trial court's application of the law to undisputed facts."[3] Additionally, the State has the burden of proving the lawfulness of a search and seizure at the motion-to-suppress hearing.[4]

         With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Abercrombie's enumerations of error.

         1. Abercrombie argues that the officer who stopped him lacked reasonable, articulable suspicion to initiate a stop of his vehicle. Specifically, he contends that his truck's lack of an interior rearview mirror did not constitute a violation of OCGA § 40-8-7 and OCGA § 40-8-72 and, as a result, could not have given the officer the requisite reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify a stop. We agree.

         In order to initiate a traffic stop, a law-enforcement officer must have "specific and articulable facts that provide a reasonable suspicion that the individual being stopped is engaged in criminal activity."[5] Here, as previously detailed, the officer who stopped Abercrombie testified that he initiated the stop due to a suspected violation of OCGA § 40-8-7 and OCGA § 40-8-72 when he noticed that Abercrombie's single-cab pickup truck lacked an interior rearview mirror. Thus, we must determine whether the absence of an interior rearview mirror constitutes a violation of the relevant Code sections.

         In this regard, the fundamental rules of statutory construction require us to "construe the statute according to its terms, to give words their plain and ordinary meaning, and to avoid a construction that makes some language mere surplusage."[6] Put another way, when we consider the meaning of a statute, we must (1) "presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant, "[7] and (2) "read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would."[8] As our Supreme Court has recently explained,

[i]n our search for the meaning of a particular statutory provision, we look not only to the words of that provision, but we consider its legal context as well. After all, context is a primary determinant of meaning. For context, we may look to the other provisions of the same statute, the structure and history of the whole statute, and the other law-constitutional, statutory, and common law alike-that forms the legal background of the statutory provision in question.[9]

         Here, the relevant statutes are OCGA § 40-8-7 and OCGA § 40-8-72. OCGA § 40-8-7 provides, in pertinent part, that

[n]o person shall drive or move on any highway any motor vehicle . . . unless the equipment upon any and every such vehicle is in good working order and adjustment as required in this chapter and the vehicle is in such safe mechanical condition as not to endanger the driver or other occupant or any person upon the highway.[10]

         That Code section also specifies that it is a misdemeanor to drive "on any street or highway any vehicle . . . [w]hich does not contain those parts or is not at all times equipped with such lights and other equipment in proper condition and adjustment as required in this chapter[.]"[11] As far as equipment with mirrors is concerned, OCGA § 40-8-72 provides:

(a) Except as provided in subsection (b) of this Code section, every motor vehicle which is so constructed or loaded as to obstruct the driver's view to the rear thereof from the driver's position shall be equipped with a mirror so located as to reflect to the driver a view of the highway for a distance of at least 200 feet to the rear of such vehicle.
(b) Every commercial motor vehicle shall be equipped with two rear-vision mirrors meeting the requirements of the federal motor vehicle safety standards . . . in effect at the time of manufacture, one at each side, firmly attached to the outside of the motor vehicle, and so located as to reflect to the driver a view of the highway to the rear, along both sides of the vehicle; provided, however, that only one outside mirror shall be required, which shall be on the driver's side, on a commercial motor vehicle which is so constructed that the driver has a view to the rear by means of an interior mirror.

         The trial court summarily concluded in its order that the officer's stop of Abercrombie's vehicle "was valid." But at the motion-to-suppress hearing, the court explained its belief that the statutes at issue were "vague enough that the officer's interpretation is correct." We disagree.

         First, as to OCGA § 40-8-7, although the officer repeatedly testified that his understanding was that this Code section required vehicles to be equipped with anything original to manufacture, it instead requires that vehicle equipment be "in good working order and adjustment as required in this chapter"[12] and that a vehicle "contain those parts or . . . at all times [be] equipped with such lights and other equipment in proper condition and adjustment as required in this chapter."[13] Thus, OCGA § 40-8-7 does not require vehicles to contain all original equipment from the time of manufacture but, instead, only such equipment in such proper condition and adjustment as explicitly required by the remaining provisions of Chapter 40.[14]

         Next, looking to the plain language of OCGA § 40-8-72 (a), it is clear that there is no specific requirement that a non-commercial vehicle contain an interior rearview mirror. Instead, OCGA § 40-8-72 (a), which is subject only to an exception in subsection (b) that applies to commercial motor vehicles, requires that vehicles be "equipped with a mirror so located as to reflect to the driver a view of the highway for a distance of at least 200 feet to the rear of such vehicle" when the vehicle is "so constructed or loaded as to obstruct the driver's view to the rear thereof from the driver's position." That subsection (a) does not specifically require the use of an interior mirror is bolstered by the fact that subsection (b), applicable to commercial motor vehicles, does specify the use of an interior mirror under certain circumstances.[15]

         We have previously upheld the grant of a motion to suppress when a trial court determined that "no law absolutely requires that a car be equipped with side view mirrors, "[16] citing the very statute at issue here-OCGA § 40-8-72 (a)-and emphasizing its requirement that a vehicle be equipped with "a mirror."[17] And in United States v. Chanthasouxat, [18] the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit concluded that similarly worded provisions in the Birmingham, Alabama, municipal code and the Code of Alabama did not require that a vehicle be equipped with an interior rearview mirror.[19] Indeed, the Eleventh Circuit reasoned that "the requirement that the driver be able to see 200 feet to the rear of his vehicle creates a question of fact, but [because] the statute does not assume that this requirement can only be met by an inside rear-view mirror, there is no reason for [an officer] to make such an assumption."[20] Likewise, because, by its plain language, OCGA § 40-8-72 (a) does not require that a motor vehicle be equipped with an interior rearview mirror under these circumstances, Abercrombie's lack of an interior rearview mirror did not violate that statute or OCGA § 40-8-7's requirement that vehicles be equipped as provided for in Chapter 40 of the Code.[21] Nevertheless, we must still consider the trial court's alternative ground for denying the motion to suppress-that even if the lack of an interior rearview mirror did not violate the relevant statutes, the officer initiated the stop in good faith based upon a reasonable belief that those statutes were violated.

         2. Abercrombie contends that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress on the alternative ground that the officer made the traffic stop in good faith, arguing that the "good-faith exception" does not apply under these circumstances because the officer's interpretation of OCGA § 40-8-7 and OCGA § 40-8-72 was unreasonable. Although Abercrombie's argument appears to conflate reasonable mistakes of law that can give rise to reasonable articulable suspicion (and do not violate the Fourth Amendment) with the "good-faith exception" (which can apply notwithstanding a Fourth Amendment violation), we agree that the trial court's alternative ground for denial of the motion to suppress was erroneous.

         (a) Reasonable, articulable suspicion from reasonable mistakes of law.

         In Chanthasouxat, discussed supra, the Eleventh Circuit held that although "an officer's reasonable mistake of fact may provide the objective grounds for reasonable suspicion or probable cause required to justify a traffic stop, . . . an officer's mistake of law may not."[22] The Eleventh Circuit explained that it found the relevant statute and ordinance unambiguous but that the stopping officer made a reasonable mistake of law due to his training on the subject, a city magistrate's interpretation of the law as explained to the officer, and the officer's history of having written more than 100 tickets for the lack of an interior rearview mirror.[23] Nevertheless, the Eleventh Circuit followed the Fifth and Ninth Circuits in concluding that "a mistake of law, no matter how reasonable or understandable, can [never] provide the objectively reasonable grounds for reasonable suspicion or probable cause."[24]

         Since Chanthasouxat, the Supreme Court of the United States has reached the opposite conclusion. In Heien v. North Carolina, [25] authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court addressed situations in which an officer initiates a traffic stop based upon a mistake of law and determined that objectively reasonable mistakes of law can give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold a search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[26]

         In Heien, a law-enforcement officer initiated a traffic stop after noticing that one of a vehicle's two brake lights was faulty, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the denial of a motion to suppress after determining that state law only required one working brake light, not two.[27] The Supreme Court of North Carolina then reversed this decision, holding that even if the law did not require two operable brake lights, the stop was valid because the initiating officer had a reasonable belief that only one working brake light was a violation of law.[28] After examining the statute at issue, the Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress, determining that the stopping officer made a reasonable mistake of law and, thus, had reasonable suspicion to justify the stop.[29]

         In reaching this conclusion, the Supreme Court of the United States distinguished cases in which an officer initiates a stop based upon a reasonable mistake of law and those in which the Fourth Amendment has been violated but, nevertheless, the exclusionary rule does not apply due to the so-called "good faith" exception.[30] The Court explained that it had, in a number of decisions, "looked to the reasonableness of an officer's legal error in the course of considering the appropriate remedy for a constitutional violation, instead of whether there was a violation at all."[31] But in those cases, the Court had already "found or assumed a Fourth Amendment violation" and emphasized that an officer's "mistaken view that the conduct at issue did not give rise to such a violation-no matter how reasonable-could not change that ultimate conclusion."[32] Thus, in those cases, consideration of "reasonableness of an officer's mistake was . . . limited to the separate matter of remedy."[33]

         In contrast, in Heien, "the mistake of law relate[d] to the antecedent question of whether it was reasonable for an officer to suspect that the defendant's conduct was illegal."[34] And there is no Fourth Amendment violation in the first place if the mistake is reasonable.[35] The Court explained that its holding would not discourage officers from "learning the law" because the Fourth Amendment "tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes-whether of fact or of law-must be objectively reasonable."[36] In this regard, the Court was clear: "[w]e do not examine the subjective understanding of the particular officer involved."[37]

         In a concurrence, Justice Elena Kagan gave further direction for making this assessment.[38] To be an objectively reasonable mistake of law, because the officer's subjective understanding is irrelevant, it is no defense that an officer was unaware of or untrained in the law or that the officer relied upon improper training or departmental direction.[39] Instead, courts face a "straightforward question of statutory construction" when deciding whether an officer made a reasonable mistake of law.[40]And if the law in question is "genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer's judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable mistake."[41]

         Suffice it to say, Heien provides greater clarity for our own precedent.[42] Indeed, we have previously explained that if an officer, acting in good faith, "believes that an unlawful act has been committed, his actions are not rendered improper by a later legal determination that the defendant's actions were not a crime according to a technical legal definition or distinction determined to exist in the penal statute."[43]Instead, when "an officer's honest belief that a traffic violation has actually occurred proves to be incorrect, the officer's mistaken-but-honest belief may nevertheless demonstrate the existence of at least an articulable suspicion and reasonable grounds for the stop."[44] And, as we have explained, it is not the function of law-enforcement officers to "determine on the spot such matters as the legal niceties in the definition of a certain crime, for these are matters for the courts."[45] To the contrary, the question that must be decided is "whether the officer's motives and actions at the time and under all the circumstances were reasonable and not arbitrary or harassing."[46] In light of Heien, courts must assess whether an officer's "mistaken-but-honest" belief as to the requirements of a law was objectively reasonable in terms of statutory construction.[47]

         Here, although the trial court concluded that the statutes at issue were "vague enough that the officer's interpretation [was] correct, " we determined with relative ease that the plain language of the statutes is clear and susceptible of only one reasonable interpretation. It is, then, of no consequence that the officer's belief regarding the statute's requirements stemmed from his personal experience and history of writing citations for equipment infractions.[48] Indeed, unlike the statute at issue in Heien, there is but one reasonable interpretation of the statutes in this case: OCGA § 40-8-7 specifies that vehicles be equipped as required by other provisions in Chapter 40, and OCGA § 40-8-72 does not require the use of an interior rearview mirror under the circumstances the officer observed (i.e., a single-cab, noncommercial vehicle with two side mirrors, and no testimony regarding an obstructed view).[49] Accordingly, the officer's mistake of law was not objectively reasonable and thus could not provide the reasonable, articulable suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop.[50]

         (b) The good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.

         While Heien distinguishes, on the one hand, situations in which an objectively reasonable mistake of law gives rise to reasonable articulable suspicion (and thus does not violate the Fourth Amendment) and, on the other hand, cases in which the so-called "good faith" exception applies notwithstanding a Fourth Amendment violation, [51] it does not explicitly indicate whether the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule can ever apply when an officer initiates a stop based upon a good faith mistake of law that is not objectively reasonable and thus violates the Fourth Amendment. But in Chanthasouxat, the Eleventh Circuit followed other federal circuits in declining to extend the good-faith exception to mistakes of law.[52]

         In any event, we are not at liberty to conclusively consider this question. Georgia's exclusionary rule is codified by OCGA § 17-5-30, [53] which provides that

[a] defendant aggrieved by an unlawful search and seizure may move the court for the return of property, the possession of which is not otherwise unlawful, and to suppress as evidence anything so obtained on the grounds that: (1) [t]he search and seizure without a warrant was illegal; or (2) [t]he search and seizure with a warrant was illegal because the warrant is insufficient on its face, there was not probable cause for the issuance of the warrant, or the warrant was illegally executed.[54]

         The Code section further provides that "[i]f the motion is granted the property shall be restored, unless otherwise subject to lawful detention, and it shall not be admissible in evidence against the movant in any trial."[55]

         In Gary v. State, [56] the Supreme Court of Georgia considered the scope of OCGA § 17-5-30 and examined whether the "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule as enunciated in United States v. Leon[57] was applicable in Georgia.[58] In Leon, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized that a judicially created exception to the exclusionary rule was permissible because the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution does not contain a provision "expressly precluding the use of evidence obtained in violation of its commands, and an examination of its origin and purposes makes clear that the use of fruits of a past unlawful search or seizure ...


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