Because the record supports the court’s finding that the lights were out, we accept that finding as true and apply the law to that finding.
State v. [Lea] Lee
2020 – Ohio – 4970
Ninth District Appellate Court
Summit County, Ohio
On Friday May 25, 2018 Ohio State Highway Patrol Trooper John Gray was patrolling the Akron area on midnight shift when he spotted a white Cadillac de Ville. The car captured his attention because the driver was braking sporadically, despite traveling at a slow speed and having a clear lane of travel. As Trooper Gray approached the car, it continued to brake sporadically, and he noticed that its rear license plate was not illuminated. He stopped the car at Kenmore Boulevard and 17th Street at 12:38 am.
He testified that he detected a mild odor of alcohol when he approached Ms. Lea Lee and her eyes were bloodshot and glossy. He also testified that she “was just sweating profusely and crazy” even though “the weather wasn’t that hot or anything”.
The driver was identified as Ms. Jessica Lea Lee. When Tr. Gray approached her window, he detected a mild odor of alcohol and noted that her passenger was “really fidgety and wouldn’t stop moving.” Trooper Gray also noted that Ms. Lea Lee was sweating profusely, despite the mild temperature, and had bloodshot and glossy eyes. Believing that Ms. Lea Lee might be impaired, Trooper Gray detained her and performed field sobriety testing. After he administered the tests, he arrested Ms. Lea Lee. Her male passenger was released at the scene. Ms. Lea Lee had a purse and inside Tr. Gray discovered a wallet that had a baggie containing .5 grams of a compound of fentanyl and heroin.
Ms. Lea Lee was indicted on charges of aggravated possession of fentanyl, possession of heroin, and operating a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. She filed a Motion to Suppress, and the trial court held a hearing on her motion. Ms. Lea Lee relied heavily on the cruiser camera refuting Trooper Gray’s assertion and testimony that the rear license plate was out. Trooper Gray testified that Cadillac de Ville’s generally have two rear license plate lights that are “very easy to see” when properly illuminated. He testified that Ms. Lea Lee’s lights “were definitely both out.” He acknowledged that, at various points in the dashcam recording of the stop, his cruiser’s lights made it appear that her rear license plate was illuminated. Nevertheless, he confirmed that the perceived illumination was just a reflection and it was “clearly evident” in person that the lights were not functioning. Following the hearing, the court denied her motion, and Ms. Lea Lee pleaded no contest to each of her charges. The court sentenced her to a total of one year of non-reporting community control.
Ms. Lea Lee filed an appeal with the Ninth District Appellate Court which carefully examined the dashcam video. The court focused on the alleged conflict between the dashcam video and Trooper Gray’s testimony. Ultimately the court believed Trooper Gray that the light on the rear plate was a reflection from his cruiser as the court held “Because the record supports the court’s finding that the lights were out, we accept that finding as true and apply the law to that finding.”. Ms. Lea Lee’s conviction was upheld.
Information for this article was obtained from State v. [Lea] Lee, 2020 – Ohio – 4970.
- Trooper Gray did well to utilize a minor traffic violation into a felony arrest. He articulated the behavior of the felon-to-be Ms. Lea Lee. She was nervous, sweating and fidgety. All of these behaviors, though not criminal in and of themselves, can be indicators of something more. Law enforcement should always articulate the behaviors and words of suspects.
- What is most significant in the court’s articulation is the heavy emphasis they place on the video. The court said in pertinent part “The court noted that there was some dispute as to whether her car’s rear license plate lights were functioning. Specifically, defense counsel claimed that the dashcam recording refuted the trooper’s claim that the lights were out. The court determined, however, that Trooper Gray had provided credible testimony on that issue. In reaching that determination, the court noted that it had reviewed the dashcam recording and found that various portions supported the trooper’s testimony.”. Video evidence has become nearly required in every prosecution. Law enforcement must not only activate all cameras as encounters begin but also narrate what is being seen prior to contact with suspects, victims or witnesses. Often times, the camera cannot see what the eyes see or sometimes see things the officers do not.
Don’t fail your training.
Don’t let your training fail you!
Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!