Here, shortly after approaching Mr. Fips vehicle, the FTO Officer discovered that he was wrong about the headlight being out. Thus, at that point, the reason for the stop was over and Mr. Fips should not have been further detained.

 

State v. Fips

2023 – Ohio – 2295

Eighth District Appellate Court

Cuyahoga County, Ohio

July 6, 2023

The state presented the testimony of one witness at the suppression hearing, that being FTO Officer, who effectuated the traffic stop and arrest of Mr. Fips. The officer was wearing a body camera that recorded the encounter. Two videos from the body camera were entered into evidence. [Note: the case identifies the officers by name.  However in my article I have chosen not to use the names, rather I have identified the officers as FTO Officer and Trainee Officer.]

‘Purportedly’ an Inoperable Headlight

At the relevant time, FTO Officer was a patrol officer in the Eighth District and on the day in question, at approximately midnight, he stopped a vehicle being driven by Mr. Fips purportedly because of an inoperable headlight. An officer in training was with FTO Officer.

Control Panel Did Not Indicate an Inoperable Light

The first body-camera recording shows that upon pulling Mr. Fips’s vehicle over, FTO Officer approached the driver’s side to speak with Mr. Fips. The officer told Mr. Fips that he was being pulled over because one of his headlights was out. Mr. Fips appeared surprised that a light was out. FTO Officer asked Mr. Fips for his driver’s license. Mr. Fips told him he did not have it on him but told him he did have a license and insurance and provided his name. Mr. Fips then asked which light was out and directed FTO Officer to look at a control on the car. FTO Officer looked and responded “aah.” FTO Officer then asked Mr. Fips for his social security number and name. Mr. Fips provided the information and FTO Officer told him to “just hang tight for a minute.”

Was the Headlight Inoperable?

While FTO Officer had been talking to Mr. Fips, the trainee officer walked to the front of Mr. Fips’s vehicle to look at the lights. Seconds after FTO Officer told Mr. Fips to “hang tight,” the trainee officer said “the headlights on.” FTO Officer responded, “it wasn’t on, right?” The trainee officer replied, “it was the fog light that was out.” Seconds later, the trainee officer said, “or the fog light was on, the headlight was out.” FTO Officer responded “oh,” and then proceeded to give Mr. Fips’s information to dispatch. The trainee officer can be heard on the body-camera recording saying, “it’s weird.” The video demonstrates that FTO Officer was aware that he may have been mistaken about the headlight prior to calling in Mr. Fips’s information to dispatch.

Mr. Fips has an Active Warrant

FTO Officer then learned from dispatch that Mr. Fips had a warrant for a weapons offense and that Mr. Fips had failed to reinstate his driver’s license. After learning that, FTO Officer approached Mr. Fips’s vehicle, asked him to exit, and performed a pat-down search of Mr. Fips’s person, after which Mr. Fips was handcuffed. As Mr. Fips was being handcuffed, he asked FTO Officer, “you said my front headlight was out?” FTO Officer responded, “Yes. You know you got a warrant out of Parma, right?” Mr. Fips denied knowing about the warrant and questioned the officer about it. FTO Officer said he would get more information about it from dispatch. The police had Mr. Fips get in the police cruiser.

A Bemused New Officer

In the second video, a third officer was on the scene and FTO Officer said that the warrant, “supposedly for a weapons offense,” was being verified. The trainee officer was still bemused by the situation and said, “I don’t understand the headlight.” FTO Officer agreed saying, “yeah, his headlight was out and then I pull him over and his headlight is on.

Peek-a-Boo Crack Cocaine Baggie

The police then searched Mr. Fips’s vehicle, including his center console, glove box, and truck. They found a digital scale and after finding it, FTO Officer said “there’s probably something in here somewhere.” The police also found a gun box and gun cleaning supplies, but no weapon. The body-camera videos entered into evidence do not show the police finding the subject contraband, despite their expansive search. Elsewhere in the record it is indicated that the police subsequently saw a plastic bag “peeking out” from the center console and recovered it. It contained a white powder that was later confirmed to be 47 grams of crack cocaine. After the police conducted their search, FTO Officer asked dispatch if the warrant was “good” and dispatch indicated it was.

Motion to Suppress is Denied based on a Reasonable Mistaken Belief

In its judgment denying the motion to suppress, the trial court cited State v. Spellacy, 2019-Ohio-785 (8th Dist.), wherein this court held that where an officer has an objectively reasonable belief that a traffic violation has occurred, that constitutes reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop. The trial court found that FTO Officer “had an objective reasonable belief, even though mistaken, that a traffic violation had occurred, and, thus, that belief constitutes reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop.” The trial court further found that because Mr. Fips did not have identification with him, the continued detention to verify his identity was proper.

Did the Wallflowers and Mr. Fips Have Anything in Common?

The police have authority to stop a vehicle they observe driving at night with only one headlight. State v. Moore2019-Ohio-648. Here, the record supports the trial court’s finding that the stop was legal. FTO Officer had an objectively reasonable belief based on the circumstances known to him at the time of the stop that there was an equipment failure, which was an inoperable headlight. Based on that belief, the officer conducted a legal traffic stop.

We further agree with the trial court’s finding that the stop was proper even in light of the police’s mistaken belief that Mr. Fips’s headlight was out. This court has held that, in conducting a traffic stop, an officer is not required to prove the suspect committed an offense beyond a reasonable doubt or even satisfy the lesser standard of probable cause to believe that the defendant violated the law.

In Spellacy, the police stopped the defendant because he momentarily flicked his high-beam headlights twice in a span of fourteen seconds, which the police mistakenly believed was a violation of the law. This court found that, “[B]ased on the totality of the circumstances,” even if the officer was mistaken that the defendant violated the law, “or the evidence would be insufficient to prove the elements of [the relevant statute] beyond a reasonable doubt,” the officer “had an objectively reasonable belief that a traffic violation occurred, thus constituting reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop.” Id. at ¶ 35, relying on Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, (2014).

The Mistaken Belief was Reasonable but the Extended Stop was Unreasonable

However, we disagree with the trial court’s legal conclusion that because Mr. Fips did not have identification with him, the continued detention to verify his identity was proper. Mr. Fips cites to State v. Chatton, 11 Ohio St.3d 59, (1984), and other supporting cases, contending that reasonable suspicion ends when an officer becomes aware the grounds for instituting the stop are no longer valid. In Chatton, the officer stopped a vehicle for failure to display front or rear license plates, but upon approaching the vehicle the officer observed a visible temporary tag through the rear windshield of the vehicle. The Supreme Court of Ohio held that under those circumstances, “the driver of the vehicle may not be detained further to determine the validity of his driver’s license absent some specific and articulable facts that the detention was reasonable.” Id. at 63.

Established Case Law Supporting the Detention of Mr. Fips was Unreasonable

Mr. Fips also cites State v. Brentlinger, 2019-Ohio-4989, and State v. Lewis, 2022-Ohio-3006, which involved scenarios where the police’s reasonable suspicion and probable cause ceased upon approach of the vehicle. In Brentlinger, the police learned that the driver’s license of a female vehicle owner was suspended and upon approaching the vehicle observed a male driver. In Lewis, the police initiated a traffic stop based on the suspicion of a white female vehicle owner driving with a suspended license and upon approaching the vehicle observed a black male operator of the vehicle. The Brentlinger and Lewis courts held that the continued detention of the defendants was unlawful. The police “did not have an independent basis” to extend the detention by asking for the defendant’s identification. Brentlinger at ¶ 14.

In a similar case, Lakewood v. Shelton, 2011-Ohio-4408, this court reversed the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress. In Shelton, the officer stopped the vehicle the defendant was driving because he was unable to read the vehicle’s snow-covered license plate as he was driving behind it. However, as the officer approached the vehicle, he was able to read the license plate. The defendant argued that the police’s continued detention of him after being able to read the plate was improper. This court agreed, specifically relying on the following pronouncement in:

In our view, because the police officer no longer maintained a reasonable suspicion that [that defendant’s] vehicle was not properly licensed or registered, to further detain [the defendant] and demand that he produce his driver’s license is akin to the random detentions struck down by the Supreme Court in Delaware v. Prouse, [440 U.S. 648, (1979)]. Although the police officer, as a matter of courtesy, could have explained to [the defendant] the reason he was initially detained, the police officer could not unite the search to this detention, and appellee should have been free to continue on his way without having to produce his driver’s license.

Conclusion and Holding

Here, shortly after approaching Mr. Fips vehicle, the FTO Officer discovered that he was wrong about the headlight being out. Thus, at that point, the reason for the stop was over and Mr. Fips should not have been further detained. We further find it troubling that Mr. Fips was escorted from his vehicle prior to confirmation that the warrant was “good” and searched without being told why. Moreover, the discovery of the drugs was not captured on the video.

On this record, the trial court erred in denying Mr. Fips’s motion to suppress. The first assignment of error is sustained. The remaining assignments of error are moot and we decline to consider them.

Judgment reversed.

Information for this article was obtained from State v Fips, 2023 – Ohio – 2295.

State v Fips, 2023 – Ohio – 2295 was issued on July 6, 2023 by the Eighth District Appellate Court and is binding in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Mistake of Law – In Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, (2014) the U.S. Supreme Court held that Surry County North Carolina Sgt. Matt Darisse stopped Mr. Nicholas Heien for having only one rear brake light. During the stop, the sergeant obtained a gut feeling criminal activity was afoot, requested and obtained consent to search the vehicle.  The search revealed a moderate amount of cocaine.  However, North Carolina traffic code only required one working brake light which Mr. Heien had, so he did not violate the traffic code.  The U.S. Supreme Court held that the traffic stop was lawful because the sergeant (!) was permitted to have a mistaken belief in law as it held “Because [Sergeant] Darisse’s mistake of law was reasonable, there was reasonable suspicion to justifying the stop under the Fourth Amendment.”. I strongly oppose the ideology in this case because I have a radical belief that officers should know the law to enforce the law but my opinion is of no consequence.  The U.S. Supreme Court held that law enforcement may have a ‘reasonable mistaken belief in law’.
  2. Continued Detention of a Non-Traffic Violator – The Heien case has to be contrasted with State v. Chatton, 11 Ohio St.3d 59, (1984) that was issued by the Supreme Court of Ohio.  In that case a Maple Heights Police Officer stopped Mr. Chatton for not having a rear license plate.  Upon first approach the officer observed a temporary tag laying on the deck behind the rear window.  Undeterred, the officer obtained Mr. Chatton’s drivers license, determined he did not have a valid license and during an inventory discovered a loaded .44 caliber handgun in the glovebox.  Chatton was charged with Driving Under Suspension and CCW.  The Supreme Court of Ohio overturned his conviction as it held “[T]he driver of the vehicle may not be detained further to determine the validity of his driver’s license absent some specific and articulable facts that the detention was reasonable.”
  3. Detention was Unreasonable – Applying the Heien and Chatton cases together to Mr. Fips’ traffic stop, the FTO Officer was reasonable to stop Mr. Fips for one headlight, even though there were two operable headlights. Once the FTO Officer discovered that both lights were operable the continued detention of Mr. Fips was unreasonable and he should have been released.  This is a good lesson to be learned – that if an officer stops a pedestrian or vehicle and the purpose of that stop was a mistake, the person and/or vehicle must be immediately released.  This happened to me several times when a pedestrian or vehicle was stopped contemporaneous to a crime and the person or vehicle initially matched the description.  Once stopped, it was obvious that the person or vehicle was not involved in the crime, so everyone was immediately released.  Law enforcement cannot detain the person further to obtain an identification card and conduct LEADS or warrant checks.  That is what occurred here with Mr. Fips and the courts were quick to identify the unreasonable detention.
  4. Do not fail your training and do not let your training fail you! – If an officer does not know case law … he may make case law.

Does your agency train on the Traffic Stops?

Contact me at https://www.objectivelyreasonable.com/contact/

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and Objectively Reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.