At the time Officer #1 observed Mr. Kancler’s headlights were operating, the basis for the traffic stop was over.

 

State v. Kancler

2024 – Ohio – 16

Eighth District Appellate Court

Cuyahoga County, Ohio

January 4, 2024

No Headlights Lead to Crack Cocaine

On October 11, 2022, Officer #1 had been employed for two and one-half years as a patrol officer, initiated a traffic stop in the Eighth District because Mr. Robert Kancler was allegedly driving without his headlights. Pursuant to that traffic stop, Officer #1 searched Mr. Kancler’s vehicle and found crack cocaine.

Note:  The police agency and the officer were identified in the case.  Both have been redacted in this article.

Indicted for Drug Possession

On December 20, 2022, in Cuyahoga C.P. No. CR- 22-675076-A, the Cuyahoga County Grand Jury indicted Mr. Kancler on one count of drug possession in violation of O.R.C. §2925.11(A), a felony of the fourth degree.

Motion to Suppress

On January 10, 2023, Mr. Kancler pleaded not guilty. On March 7, 2023, Mr. Kancler filed a motion to suppress the drugs discovered when his vehicle was searched. On May 16, 2023, the trial court conducted a hearing on the motion to suppress where Mr. Kancler was represented by counsel and testimony was presented by Officer #1. Officer #1’s body camera recorded the traffic stop and subsequent search of Mr. Kancler’s vehicle. The recording, which includes both video and audio footage, was played for the trial court and admitted into evidence. The recording includes a timer that indicates the duration of the traffic stop, starting at the time Officer #1 initiated his flashing lights. Officer #1’s testimony references the timespan of the traffic stop as reflected by the body-camera timer.

Testimony – Stopped for No Headlights

Officer #1 testified that on the evening of Tuesday October 11, 2022, he conducted a traffic stop of Mr. Kancler because one of Mr. Kancler’s vehicle’s headlights was not working. Officer #1 was alone in his patrol car.

Fluttering Headlights

Officer #1 and Mr. Kancler pulled over to the side of the road, and Officer #1 approached the passenger side of Mr. Kancler’s vehicle. Officer #1 informed Mr. Kancler that he pulled him over because both headlights were extinguished. Officer #1 then walked to the front of the car, observed the headlights, and stated the headlight fluttered for a second and it was dull. In response, Mr. Kancler stated water was entering the lights and he needed a new wheel well. The body-camera footage depicted both headlights were illuminated at the time of the traffic stop.

Driver’s License and Courtesy Badge

Officer #1 requested Mr. Kancler’s driver’s license, which was promptly provided along with a “sheriff’s badge” or “courtesy badge.” Officer #1 testified that drivers obtain a “courtesy badge” if they are friendly with a police officer or sheriff and the badge is provided in hopes that the investigating police officer will show some consideration. Officer #1 testified that Mr. Kancler was shaking when he provided his license and “courtesy badge.” Upon receipt of Mr. Kancler’s identification papers, Officer #1 communicated the driver’s license number to dispatch and received confirmation that Mr. Kancler had a valid license.

Consent to Search is Denied

At approximately two minutes into the traffic stop, Officer #1 informed Mr. Kancler that he had arrested Mr. Kancler for drugs, on the same street, the prior year. Mr. Kancler denied that he had drugs in his car and refused a search of his vehicle. Officer #1 informed Mr. Kancler that he was going to return to his patrol car and likely issue him a warning. Immediately upon stepping away from Mr. Kancler’s vehicle, Officer #1 requested from dispatch a canine unit to perform a drug sniff of Mr. Kancler’s vehicle.

Request for Canine

Officer #1 returned to his patrol car and made phone calls to two canine units informing them that he wanted a canine sniff because he had arrested Mr. Kancler the previous year for drugs and Mr. Kancler now refused to allow a search of his vehicle.

Upon arrival of a canine unit, Officer #1 approached Mr. Kancler and asked him to exit his vehicle. Officer #1 completed a pat down of Mr. Kancler. Officer #1 and Mr. Kancler stepped to the sidewalk, and Officer #1 informed him that the canine unit would examine the exterior of his car “because of our history and things like that … you know … it seems like a pretty fair way to go about it.”

Canine Positive Alert

Pursuant to the dog sniff, the canine unit informed Officer #1 of a positive alert for drugs. Officer #1 testified that he had probable cause to search the vehicle based upon the canine unit’s positive alert.

Crack Cocaine is Discovered in the Glove Box and in Robert’s Pocket

Officer #1 performed a search of Mr. Kancler’s vehicle, starting with the driver’s side and continuing to the front passenger side of the car. Officer #1 found a velvet bag in the passenger glove box that contained crack cocaine. Officer #1 handcuffed Mr. Kancler and read Mr. Kancler his Miranda rights. Additional cocaine was found in Mr. Kancler’s pants pocket. Field tests were positive for crack cocaine.

Convicted and Sentenced to Five Years of Community Control

Following the hearing on Mr. Kancler’s motion to suppress, the trial court verbally denied the motion. Pursuant to the trial court’s ruling, Mr. Kancler withdrew his former plea and pleaded no contest to the indictment. The trial court found Mr. Kancler guilty of drug possession in violation of O.R.C. §2925.11(A) and sentenced him to five years of community control subject to a number of conditions.

Appeal

On June 12, 2023, Mr. Kancler filed a timely appeal, presenting this sole assignment of error for our review: “The trial court erred in denying appellant’s motion to suppress evidence.”

Did Officer #1 Have Reasonable Suspicion to Detain Mr. Kancler?

Mr. Kancler argues that the police’s reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop ended when Officer #1 observed Mr. Kancler’s functioning headlights. Mr. Kancler argues that Officer #1 did not work diligently to issue a warning citation but purposely extended the length of the traffic stop to allow for the appearance of a drug-sniffing dog. Mr. Kancler further argues that there was no justification to prolong the traffic stop to allow for a drug sniff of his vehicle. The state contends that Officer #1 had reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop. The state contends that the traffic stop was not prolonged where the drug sniff occurred ten minutes after the police initiated the traffic stop.

Alternatively, the state argues that even if Officer #1 extended the traffic stop to allow for a dog sniff, he was justified in doing so.

We find Mr. Kancler’s arguments about the initial traffic stop are dispositive of this appeal.

Validity and Duration of the Traffic Stop

In the instant case, Officer #1 initiated a traffic stop because either Mr. Kancler’s headlight or headlights were allegedly extinguished. Mr. Kancler argues that there was no reasonable suspicion to pull him over for the alleged traffic violation and the traffic stop should have ended once the investigating officer determined Mr. Kancler’s headlights were illuminated.

Established Case Law for Traffic Stops

An officer conducting a traffic stop must comply with the reasonableness requirements of the Fourth Amendment. State v. McDonald, 2023-Ohio-464, ¶ 24, citing Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996).

As stated by this court in State v. Byrd, 2022-Ohio-4635: “[A] traffic stop is constitutionally valid if an officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion that a motorist has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.”

Where an officer stops a motorist on the reasonable suspicion that the motorist committed a traffic violation, the “officer may detain the motorist only long enough to issue a warning or citation.” State v. Jones, 2014-Ohio-2763. If the circumstances attendant to the traffic stop create a reasonable suspicion of other illegal activity, the officer may detain the motorist so long as the new articulable and reasonable suspicion continues. The existence of reasonable suspicion is determined by evaluating the totality of the circumstances ““‘through the eyes of the reasonable and prudent police officer on the scene who must react to events as they unfold.’””State v. Heard, 2003-Ohio-1047.

The record supports that Officer #1’s initial traffic stop was valid where Officer #1 had an objectively reasonable belief, based upon the circumstances known to him at the time of the stop, that there was an equipment failure — an inoperable headlight. Based upon his belief, Officer #1 conducted a valid traffic stop.

State v. Chatton, 11 Ohio St.3d 59 (1984)

However, our inquiry does not end with determining a valid traffic stop occurred. An officer’s reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation occurred terminates when the officer recognizes the grounds for effectuating the stop are no longer valid. In State v. Chatton, 11 Ohio St.3d 59, (1984), a police officer detained a driver whose vehicle displayed neither front nor rear license plates. Upon stopping the driver, the officer observed a temporary license resting on the rear deck of the vehicle, directly beneath the rear window. While the officer was justified in the initial traffic stop, the officer no longer had a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle was not properly licensed or registered when he viewed the temporary license and, therefore, had no continuing justification to request the motorist’s driver’s license or to detain him further. Chatton at 63. In other words, once an officer has no reason to suspect the driver was committing a traffic violation, the officer does not maintain authority to further detain the driver absent some specific and articulable facts that continued detention is reasonable.

Here, at the start of the traffic stop, Officer #1 exited his patrol car and approached Mr. Kancler’s front passenger side window. Officer #1 stated he stopped Mr. Kancler because both of his headlights were extinguished. Mr. Kancler responded with what sounded like disbelief when he stated, “What?” Officer #1 then walked to the front of Mr. Kancler’s vehicle, looked at the headlights, and stated, “It’s fluttering man. Well, this one’s cracked but it’s very … it’s very dull. Now it’s kind of on. But it was fluttering for a second.” Mr. Kancler did not concede that his headlights were inoperable or fluttering but responded that water was seeping into his lights and he needed a new water well. This exchange, as well as a clear view of the headlights, was recorded on the officer’s body-camera footage and presented at the motion to suppress hearing.

At the suppression hearing, Officer #1 testified that he stopped Mr. Kancler because he observed one headlight was extinguished. Officer #1 testified that he incorrectly told Mr. Kancler at the traffic stop that both headlights were inoperable. Officer #1 initially testified that the body-camera footage demonstrated that Mr. Kancler’s headlights were flickering. Upon replaying the video footage, Officer #1 conceded the footage showed both headlights were illuminated at the time of the traffic stop. However, Officer #1 testified that as he approached the front of Mr. Kancler’s vehicle from the passenger side door, he observed a change in the headlight but admitted no such change was captured on the video. The following testimony was also provided at the suppression hearing:

THE COURT: The defendant’s vehicle would have been in motion when you first observed it. Is that so?

OFFICER #1: Yes.

THE COURT: Is it your best recollection at that time that one or more of the headlights was out entirely or fluttering at that point?

OFFICER #1: For me to conduct a traffic stop, one of the headlights has to be completely out.

THE COURT: What, as you recall, was the case in this situation?

OFFICER #1: His right headlight was completely out.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: And in your experience, wouldn’t it be abnormal for a headlight to be dead and then to be illuminated later?

ASSISTANT PROSECUTING ATTORNEY: Objection.

OFFICER #1: Yes.

THE COURT: Overruled.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Yes, that’s unusual, correct?

OFFICER #1: That’s abnormal.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: So normally a headlight is out because it’s burned out. You would agree?

OFFICER #1: Correct.

THE COURT: Or damaged perhaps.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: Or perhaps damaged. But it was not illuminating, and usually when they’re out, they’re out. You would agree with that?

OFFICER #1: Yes.

DEFENSE COUNSEL: And in this case, we didn’t see either of those headlights out; isn’t that true?

OFFICER #1: It is not captured on the video.

In determining that Mr. Kancler’s motion to suppress was not well-taken, the trial court made the following comment about the traffic stop:

It is not unreasonable and it is lawful for motorists to be briefly detained when an officer observes headlights out or malfunctioning, especially at night. It is not especially unusual in the Court’s experience for malfunctioning headlights to flicker or appear even intermittently out entirely [sic] as they apparently did for Officer #1.

Eighth District Demands Absolute Proof

The trial court’s statement is not evidence. If the trial court’s statement was meant to be a finding of fact, we do not find that it was supported by competent, credible evidence. While Officer #1 testified that Mr. Kancler’s headlight was inoperable when he observed Mr. Kancler driving, the body-camera footage does not show a headlight was extinguished at the time of the traffic stop. The footage shows both headlights fully functioning as confirmed by Officer #1’s testimony. Officer #1’s statement that the headlights were dull does not demonstrate a traffic violation. Additionally, Officer #1 testified that an extinguished headlight does not typically flicker off and on.

Officer #1’s reasonable suspicion and probable cause ceased upon his examination of the functioning headlight. At the time Officer #1 observed Mr. Kancler’s headlights were operating, the basis for the traffic stop was over.

Further, there were no specific and articulable facts that reasonably justified Mr. Kancler’s continued detention. After observing the headlights, Officer #1 returned to the passenger driver’s side door and asked Mr. Kancler for his driver’s license. Officer #1 testified that he detected Mr. Kancler was shaking when he handed over his identification. Officer #1 called dispatch to verify the validity of Mr. Kancler’s driver’s license. At one minute and 50 seconds into the traffic stop, while waiting for a response from dispatch, Officer #1 told Mr. Kancler that he had arrested him for drugs on the same busy street one year earlier. At two minutes, five seconds into the stop, dispatch informed Officer #1 that Mr. Kancler held a valid driver’s license. Officer #1 told Mr. Kancler he would likely write him a citation and as he walked towards his patrol car, the officer immediately called for a canine unit.

Eighth District Determines the Origin of Mr. Kancler’s Nervousness

Any alleged suspicion held by Officer #1 was based upon the arrest of Mr. Kancler one year earlier and Mr. Kancler’s nervousness. [This observation] at best support[s] an inchoate and unparticularized hunch that criminal activity might be afoot. However, [it does] not constitute specific facts to support a reasonable suspicion justifying an officer extending a traffic stop so that a canine could confirm or dispel the officer’s suspicion about illegal drug or gun activity. Mr. Kancler should not have been detained further or subjected to a search of his vehicle.

Eighth District Questions Officer #1’s Integrity

The record does not demonstrate any suspicious activity by Mr. Kancler, but it is difficult not to question Officer #1’s intentions. Officer #1 testified he initiated the traffic stop because one headlight was inoperable. Yet, the body- camera footage demonstrated both headlights were fully illuminated and Officer Davis testified it would be abnormal for a headlight to be fully extinguished — as he claimed — and subsequently illuminated. It seems debatable that Officer #1 initiated the traffic stop due to an extinguished headlight rather than somehow recognizing Mr. Kancler’s license plate and car as one he previously stopped and cited for drug violations.

Mr. Kancler was polite and cooperative in his exchanges with the officer, and Officer #1 did not testify that he observed drugs in Mr. Kancler’s vehicle or smelled drugs or alcohol on Mr. Kancler. Officer #1 obtained Mr. Kancler’s driver’s license, and Officer #1 testified that he would typically carry the license with him when he returned to his patrol car. But Officer #1 did not retain the license when he returned to his patrol car to allegedly write a citation. The body-camera footage clearly depicts the driver’s license resting on the passenger seat where it remained from the time Officer #1 first called dispatch through the search of the vehicle, again raising a question as the officer’s intentions.

Trial Court is Overturned

For the foregoing reasons, the trial court erred when it denied Mr. Kancler’s motion for suppression. Mr. Kancler’s assignment of error is sustained, and the judgment is reversed and remanded.

Information for this article was obtained from State v. Kancler, 2024 – Ohio – 16.

State v. Kancler, 2024 – Ohio – 16 was issued by the Eighth District Appellate Court on January 4, 2024 and is binding in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

Lessons Learned:

  1. State v. Chatton – The Eighth District Appellate Court held in favor of the crack possessor Mr. Kancler because of State v. Chatton, 11 Ohio St.3d 59, 63 (1984). In that case the Supreme Court of Ohio held “[W]here a police officer stops a motor vehicle which displays neither front nor rear license plates, but upon approaching the stopped vehicle observes a temporary tag which is visible through the rear windshield, 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.”. The legal congruence to this case, is that once the origin of the traffic stop is dispelled then the driver and vehicle must be immediately released without inquiry into the validity of the driver’s license.  Because Mr. Kancler’s headlights were illuminated on first approach, any further inquiry by the officer made the traffic stop unreasonable.
  2. Fluttering Headlights – What the officer and trial court judge determined was that the headlights may have been out when the officer stopped the vehicle. This was underscored by the lights fluttering.  Perhaps the headlights were out when the officer observed and stopped the vehicle but then fluttered back on at the time of the traffic stop.  Even if this possible fact pattern occurred, once the officer observed the headlights on, the traffic stop should have terminated.  This hardline approach appears to eschew the U.S. Supreme Court holding in Illinois v. Rodriquez, 497 U.S. 177, 185 (1990) when it opined “[P]olice officers conducting a search or seizure under one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement – is not that they always be correct but that they always be reasonable.”.
  3. Water Entering the Headlight? If an officer stops a vehicle with fluttering headlights, it may be wise to document by video if possible, what the officer observed prior to the traffic stop.  In this case, it appears the officer stopped Mr. Kancler because his vehicle headlights were out, thereafter the headlights fluttered back on.  The Eighth District Appellate Court does not address this likely fact pattern.  Rather the court questions the officer’s intentions; “The record does not demonstrate any suspicious activity by Mr. Kancler, but it is difficult not to question Officer #1’s intentions. Officer #1 testified he initiated the traffic stop because one headlight was inoperable. Yet, the body- camera footage demonstrated both headlights were fully illuminated and Officer Davis testified it would be abnormal for a headlight to be fully extinguished — as he claimed — and subsequently illuminated. It seems debatable that Officer #1 initiated the traffic stop due to an extinguished headlight rather than somehow recognizing Mr. Kancler’s license plate and car as one he previously stopped and cited for drug violations.”.  The Eighth District also dismisses Mr. Kancler’s knowledge of water entering the electrical system of his headlights “Mr. Kancler stated water was entering the lights and he needed a new wheel well.”.
  4. Courtesy Badge? What is left unanswered is how Mr. Kancler obtained a courtesy badge?

Does your agency train on Traffic Stops?

Don’t fail your training.

Don’t let your training fail you!

Be safe, smart and objectively reasonable!

Robert H. Meader Esq.