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State v. Lewis

Court of Appeals of Georgia, First Division

February 21, 2018



          McMillian, Judge.

         The State appeals the trial court's grant of Brent Lewis' motion to suppress evidence obtained after his car was impounded during a traffic stop. The State argues on appeal that the trial court erred in granting the motion to suppress because the officer had reasonable articulable suspicion for the traffic stop based on information provided by two police databases showing that Lewis had no insurance on the car. Although the database search results may have provided the officer with reasonable articulable suspicion to initiate a stop of Lewis' vehicle, we affirm the trial court's grant of the motion to suppress because after Lewis provided valid proof of his insurance coverage, the officer lacked probable cause to issue a traffic citation for driving without insurance and, thus, lacked any basis to impound and inventory Lewis' car.

          In reviewing the grant or denial of a motion to suppress, we apply three fundamental principles as outlined by our Supreme Court:

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.

(Citation omitted.) Miller v. State, 288 Ga. 286, 286 (1) (702 S.E.2d 888) (2010). However, "where the evidence is uncontroverted and no question regarding the credibility of witnesses is presented, the trial court's application of the law to undisputed facts is subject to de novo appellate review." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Williams v. State, 327 Ga.App. 239, 239-40 (758 S.E.2d 141) (2014).

         The evidence from the hearing on Lewis' motion to suppress shows that on November 4, 2016, an officer with the City of Atlanta Police Department was running vehicle tags at the intersection of McDaniel and Whitehall Streets in Fulton County, Georgia. In performing this operation, the officer checked vehicle license tags using the Georgia Criminal Information Center ("GCIC") database to confirm with the Georgia Department of Driver's Services ("Driver's Services") whether a vehicle had insurance coverage. The GCIC search reflected that a 1998 white Honda Civic, driven by Lewis, was not covered by insurance. To verify the results of the GCIC search, the officer used a second system, the Atlanta Criminal Information Center (ACIC) database, which also reflected that the Honda had no insurance coverage. The officer testified that his stop of Lewis' vehicle was based solely on the database information that the car had no insurance.

         When the officer approached the vehicle to explain the reason for the stop, Lewis responded that he had insurance. The officer testified that Lewis handed him a piece of paper that appeared to be a warning from an insurance company stating the vehicle was uninsured. Lewis testified, however, that he showed the officer an e-mail and an insurance company app on his cell phone demonstrating that he had insurance, but the officer told him he could not accept that information. The officer stated that he was not sure if Lewis showed him an app on his phone because Lewis was very nervous and "was trying to do a bunch of things at the same time." The officer also allowed Lewis to call his insurance company for proof, but the stop took place at around 10:30 to 11 p.m. at night and Lewis was unable to reach his insurer at that hour. Based on his observation that Lewis seemed "extremely nervous, " the officer called for backup because he was patrolling alone. After the other police unit arrived, the officer ran the tag through ACIC again to confirm that it showed no insurance. He then informed Lewis that he was going to issue a citation and impound the vehicle, [1]leading to an inventory search that found evidence upon which further charges were based.[2] Lewis subsequently filed a motion to suppress that evidence under OCGA § 17-5-30.

         At the motion hearing, Lewis presented a copy of his insurance card, his policy declaration page, and a printout of his premium payment history, which showed that the car was insured as of October 28, 2016, and at the time of the traffic stop approximately one week later, on November 4. Additionally, at the trial judge's request, Lewis showed the judge a screenshot of his insurance card from his phone, which he said he showed the officer that night.

         Based on this evidence, the trial court granted Lewis's motion to suppress, finding

from a totality of circumstances, after having had the opportunity to observe the witnesses testify, and consideration of the evidence presented, that Defendant did present the officer with proof of valid vehicle insurance. As Defendant testified, he had only purchased vehicle insurance a few days before the traffic stop. Therefore, it stands to reason that Defendant had not received a physical insurance card but would have had the insurance information available for review on his cellphone application. It further stands to reason, as testified to by Defendant, that having just purchased vehicle insurance, Defendant would have provided that information to [the officer] in a traffic stop for no vehicle insurance.

         The trial court found that because the officer had proof of valid vehicle insurance at the outset of the traffic stop and he had no other articulable reason for the stop, Lewis was entitled to suppression of the evidence seized.

         It is well settled that under the Fourth Amendment that

[a]n investigatory stop must be justified by some objective manifestation that the person stopped is, or is about to be, engaged in criminal activity. That determination can only be made after considering the totality of the circumstances or the whole picture. Based upon that whole picture, the detaining officers must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal ...

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