Flashlight flick called illegal search when it leads to DUISupreme Court asked to uphold drunken driving evidence against area man.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
VERMILLION -- Evidence of drunken driving obtained during a traffic stop should be allowed at a trial even if the reason for the stop turned out to be bogus, a prosecutor told the South Dakota Supreme Court.
Assistant Attorney General Craig Eichstadt and defense attorney John Steele, representing Brian Amick, of Jerauld County, presented their oral arguments Wednesday to the South Dakota Supreme Court at the University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion. Eichstadt, the prosecutor, is seeking to have the case remanded back to circuit court for a trial with the disputed evidence included.
The case began shortly before 3:30 a.m. Sept. 11, 2011, when Jerauld County Sheriff’s Deputy Shane Mentzer stopped a pickup driven by Amick because Mentzer could not see a rear license plate on the pickup, according to a summary of the case provided by the state Supreme Court.
As Mentzer pulled behind Amick’s pickup, he saw a dealership’s logo on the rear license plate bracket but failed to see the valid temporary license in the pickup’s rear window, the summary says. As Mentzer approached the vehicle, he shined his flashlight into the rear window of the pickup and saw an open bottle of beer, started a driving-under-the-influence investigation, and then arrested Amick for drunken driving, the summary says.
“Only later did the deputy notice the valid temporary permit on the back window,” the summary says.
Mentzer later testified that he tried to look for the temporary license, but a passenger in the bed of the pickup likely obscured his view, the summary says.
Judge Tim Tucker ruled that because Mentzer “could have verified the presence and expiration date of that temporary plate without getting out of his patrol car and without approaching Amick’s pickup,” he “unreasonably and illegally” widened the scope of the stop, and suppressed the evidence obtained as a result of the stop.
“At a minimum,” Eichstadt said, addressing the Supreme Court, “the deputy or any law enforcement officer is entitled to go forward and tell a citizen the reason he has been stopped.”
That means Tucker’s ruling that Mentzer’s investigation was unreasonable was incorrect, because even if Mentzer had seen the temporary license, he isn’t required to leave without speaking to Amick at all, Eichstadt said.
“He had to look in the pickup,” Eichstadt said. “He would have seen the beer no matter what.”
Steele claims the state did not prove Mentzer made any attempt to look for the temporary license from his patrol car or on his approach.
“All (Mentzer) knew before the stop was that he didn’t see it,” Steele said. “To know that he couldn’t see it, he would’ve had to look.”
Steele argues when Mentzer shined a light into the back seat, it equated to a search of the vehicle. Eichstadt disagreed.
“The officer here didn’t expand the search,” Eichstadt said. “Not until after he saw the beer behind the console where the driver had access to it.”
Tucker’s decision to suppress the evidence from the stop should be reversed and the case should be remanded back to the circuit court for trial, Eichstadt said.
The Supreme Court will issue a decision at a later date.