Reason for stop in this case not valid


In 2000, Robert Couldery was returning to New York from a vacation in California. Couldery had secured a rental car bearing California tags for his return home, and was driving east on Interstate 20 between Brandon and Pelahatchie when he saw a marked Mississippi Highway Patrol car parked on the right shoulder of the interstate. Before passing the vehicle, Couldery changed from the right lane of traffic to the left lane.

Trooper Brad Vincent occupied the patrol car, and after Couldery passed, Vincent observed Couldery for a moment as he continued to drive in the left-hand lane. Vincent then pulled out from the shoulder of the interstate and began to follow Couldery. After following Couldery for about thirty seconds, Vincent turned on his blue lights and pulled Couldery over for driving in the left-hand lane.

Vincent gathered Couldery’s license and registration information and ran his license plate information through the computer. Finding no outstanding warrants on Couldery, Vincent began to question him about the purpose and nature of his trip. Vincent then asked Couldery if he could search his vehicle. Couldery denied Vincent access to the vehicle, and Vincent then ordered Couldery to move his vehicle to a different location to await the arrival of a K-9 unit.

With Vincent still in possession of Couldery’s license, Couldery followed Vincent to a gas station four or five miles away. Officer John King of the Pelahatchie Police Department K-9 Unit arrived at the gas station, spoke with Vincent, and then worked his K-9 around Couldery’s vehicle. The K-9 attempted to enter through the window on the driver’s side, which was open. The K-9 also showed interest in the trunk area of the car.

Vincent opened the rear car door and discovered a small bag on the back seat that contained syringes and two small bottles of what appeared to be steroids. After finding the drugs, Vincent and King opened the trunk of the car in which they found two suitcases. Couldery stated that he did not have the key to one of the suitcases, so the officers pried the suitcase open with a metal bar.

The opened suitcase revealed a large variety of medications, which Vincent identified as steroids. The second suitcase was opened as well, and it contained clothing in addition to steroids. Couldery was then placed under arrest.

Couldery was convicted on two counts of possession of a Schedule III controlled substance and sentenced to 40 years. On appeal, he argued the reason for the stop was improper. MCOA agreed with Couldery and reversed the conviction.


A. Traffic stop 63-3-601

The traffic stop was predicated on a traffic violation, namely that Couldery was driving in the left-hand lane of the roadway. The trial judge determined that Couldery was stopped for violating Mississippi Code Annotated Section 63-3-601. On appeal, the State submits that Couldery was in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated Section 63-3-603, and additionally argues that Couldery failed to maintain a proper lookout while driving. The State’s attempt to play a legal game of pin-the-tail on the charges belies a larger issue in the case, specifically whether it was constitutionally permissible for Trooper Vincent to stop Couldery.

Under Terry, the legality of a police investigatory stop is tested in two parts. First, this court must examine if the officer’s actions were justified at its inception, and then this court must inquire whether the officer’s subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop.

Mississippi Code Annotated Sections 63-3-601 is titled, vehicles to be driven on right half of roadway; exceptions. This statute should be read in conjunction with Mississippi Code Annotated Section 63-3-611, which addresses the exceptions to 601’s requirement that traffic remain on the right side of the roadway.

The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion in October 2002 addressing sections 63-3-601 and 611. The Attorney General opined that given the exclusive existence of two lane highways in the state at the time the statutes were enacted, it is apparent that the intent of the legislature was to address dangerous driving conditions on two lane highways. The Attorney General further opined that driving in the left-hand lane of a four lane highway does not violate either statute. This court is inclined to agree.

After a review of the cases addressing 63-3-601, this court finds that Couldery’s actions in driving in the left lane of the right half of the interstate highway did not constitute a criminal offense as contemplated in the statute. Furthermore, section 63-3-601(4) exempts roadways “designated and signposted for one-way traffic.” Even if the legislature intended to include the interstate highway within the purview of section 63-3-601, the interstate highway is clearly a roadway that is designated and signposted for one-way traffic, and therefore traffic on the interstate would fall into the exception enumerated in 63-3-601(4). Accordingly, this court finds that the traffic stop was not valid.

B. Traffic stop 63-3-603

On appeal, the State argues that Couldery was also in violation of Mississippi Code Annotated Section 63-3-603, entitled Driving on roadways laned for traffic

The State’s reliance on this case is misplaced, for there is no evidence in the record that Couldery violated 63-3-603 in moving from the right-hand lane to the left-hand lane. According to Vincent, there were no other vehicles on the interstate other than Couldery and Vincent. The State adduced no evidence that Couldery changed from the right lane to the left lane without first ascertaining that he could change lanes with safety.

Additionally, the State argues that Couldery was under a duty to maintain a proper lookout. This argument further lacks merit, for Couldery’s proper lookout is evidenced by the fact that he saw Vincent’s vehicle parked on the shoulder of the interstate and moved from the right lane to the left lane to maintain a safe distance from Trooper Vincent’s vehicle. This Court is not convinced that Couldery violated section 63-3-603.

C. Good Faith Exception to Probable Cause

The State further argues that even if this court determines that Couldery did not violate sections 63-3-601, 63-3-603, and/or 63-3-611, under Harrison, the stop was proper despite Vincent’s mistake of law as to the traffic offense.

In Harrison, the defendant was stopped by sheriff’s deputies while driving 67-70 miles per hour in a construction zone marked with a 60 mile per hour speed limit. This led to drugs being recovered. Harrison argued he was going under the normal 70 MPH limit and that there were no construction workers at the time of the stop to trigger the 60 MPH rule. MSC agreed with Harrison that the officer made a mistake of law but found that probable cause based upon good faith and a reasonable basis was valid, despite a mistake of law.

In contrast with the conflicting speed limit statutes in Harrison, there is no dispute that Couldery was not committing a traffic violation at the time Vincent stopped him. Thus, Vincent had no reasonable basis to believe that Couldery was committing a traffic violation in driving in the left-hand lane of the interstate. Under the totality of the circumstances, Vincent lacked a reasonable basis for his stop, and the stop was not proper. Accordingly, the trial court erred in not suppressing all contraband which stemmed from this stop.

D. Hypothetical – if stop had been proper, was there a way to search the car

Assuming, arguendo, that Vincent had probable cause to pull Couldery over, we must determine under Terry if his subsequent actions were reasonably related to the stop. In Townsend, our MSC determined that when an officer is making a valid stop, and has not exceeded his parameters in dealing with the defendant, any search pursuant to probable cause is valid.

The U.S. Supreme Court in California v. Acevedo, 500 U.S. 565 (1991), held that under the automobile exception police may conduct a warrantless search of an automobile and any containers therein if they have probable cause to believe that it contains contraband or evidence of crime.

The State argues that Vincent had probable cause to search the vehicle because of Couldery’s bloodshot eyes, his physical size, profession as owner of a gym, trip destination and trip transportation. While this court is aware that the presence of bloodshot eyes may be a contributing factor in establishing probable cause, under the totality of the circumstances this court is not inclined to agree that probable cause existed.

Having a large frame and owning a gym do not necessarily indicate that a person is on steroids, much less that the person is trafficking steroids. Although Couldery’s travel plans may be unusual, flying to a vacation and driving home for the return is not indicative of illegal activity. Under the totality of the circumstances, even if the stop was proper, Vincent should have ticketed Couldery and left him to journey home. Nothing in the record supports a finding that Vincent was justified in further detaining Couldery beyond the ordinary scope of a brief traffic stop.

Accordingly, the trial court erred in denying Couldery’s motion to suppress all contraband discovered as a result of the search.