A caller notified Madison P.D. (MPD) of a reckless driver on I-55 who had run off the road multiple times. Officer William Hall responded and began to follow Antionne Sellers, who matched the description. Hall noticed Sellers driving 20 MPH below the speed limit, swerving in his lane (but not crossing the line), and a tag cover obscuring the license plate expiration date.
He stopped him for the tag cover violation and detected the smell of alcohol from Seller’s breath as well as his diluted pupils. Sellers first denied and then admitted having one beer. Hall also noticed some beer cans and a liquor bottle on the car floorboard. Sellers was arrested and his blood alcohol content was determined to be .12%. He was charged with DUI and improper equipment violation.
The municipal court convicted him of both charges. On appeal, the county court affirmed the DUI (good probable cause for stop) but dismissed the improper equipment charge, noting insufficient evidence. The circuit court affirmed. On appeal to MCOA, Sellers argued that 1) Hall lacked probable cause to initiate the stop and 2) since the reason for the stop (improper equipment) was dismissed, the DUI should have been dismissed as fruit of the poisonous tree. MCOA affirmed.
A. Probable cause for stop
As a general rule, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred. The test for probable cause in Mississippi is the totality of the circumstances.
Probable cause arises when the facts and circumstances with an officer’s knowledge, or of which he has reasonably trustworthy information, are sufficient in themselves to justify a man of average caution in the belief that a crime has been committed and that a particular individual committed it.
Sellers pointed to a case called Trejo where the officer testified that there was no violation of any traffic laws but that Trejo was stopped because the officer had a concern that the defendant might have been tired or intoxicated. The MSC dismissed that case, noting that the community caretaking exception did not apply and that there was no reasonable suspicion or probable cause for the stop.
The facts of Trejo are very different from this case. Here, Hall had no less than five grounds for probable cause to initiate a traffic stop:
- The officer received a report of a car matching Sellers’ description driving recklessly;
- He independently corroborated the report with his own personal observations;
- Contrary to the defendant in Trejo, the officer did see Sellers swerving his car;
- Unlike Trejo, Sellers was driving twenty miles an hour below the speed limit on the interstate;
- Sellers was pulled over because Officer Hall believed he was committing an improper equipment violation by obscuring the expiration date on his license plate with a car tag.
Viewing the totality of the circumstances, we find that Officer Hall had probable cause to initiate the traffic stop.
B. Since the reason for stop (improper equipment) was dismissed, the DUI should have been dismissed as fruit of the poisonous tree
In Adams, we said that there is no requirement that a defendant be convicted for the predicate traffic violation to have a valid stop. The issue is not whether the defendant is ultimately found guilty of the traffic violation; rather, the issue is whether or not the officer reasonably, and objectively believed that a traffic violation had occurred.
Therefore, Sellers’ acquittal on the improper equipment charge does not mean the officer lacked probable cause for the traffic stop. This issue is without merit.