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United States v. Granbois

United States District Court, D. Montana, Great Falls Division

November 14, 2018



          Brian Morris United Slates District Court Judge.

         Defendant Richard Allen Granbois ("Granbois") moves the Court, pursuant to Rules 12(b)(3)(C) and 41(h), to suppress evidence obtained from a search of his car, based on the fact that the officer obtained the evidence in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. (Doc. 22). The Court conducted a hearing on this matter on November 11, 2018. (Doc. 32).


         Highway Patrol Trooper Derek Werner ("Trooper Werner") traveled east on Highway 2 to assist Fort Peck Tribe's Law and Justice Officers Jay Brugh and Michael Booth with a traffic stop in Poplar, Montana. (Ex. B USAO 00008, at 2). Trooper Werner followed Granbois's car as he entered Poplar's city limits. Id. Granbois entered the center lane, signaled his intent to turn, stopped and waited for multiple cars to pass, then safely made a left turn off Highway 2 and onto 5th Avenue Southwest. (Doc. 22, at 2).

         A painted median marked with double-yellow lines on either side, with large diagonal-yellow lines inside the double-yellow lane lines, covers the center lane. (Ex. A). Trooper Werner initiated a traffic stop of Granbois's car based on his understanding that Granbois could not stop his car in the center lane and initiate the left turn from the center lane. (Doc. 31 at 2). The traffic stop led to a seizure and search of Granbois's car. (Ex. C, at 6:17:52). The search yielded multiple firearms, methamphetamine, hashish, marijuana, and other paraphernalia. (Doc. 22-2, Ex. B. at 6; USAO 00012).


         "The ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness.'" Brigham City v. Stuart, 547 U.S. 398, 403 (2006). A fact-specific reasonableness inquiry applies to Fourth Amendment questions. See Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 39 (1996). The Court must evaluate the totality of the circumstances in making a reasonable-suspicion determination. United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002).

         The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const, amend. IV. "A search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action includes a reasonable factual mistake." Helen v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530, 534 (2014). Traffic stops constitute seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 536. An officer initiating this type of seizure needs only "reasonable suspicion-that is, a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped [is] breaking the law." Id. (internal quotations omitted).

         To be reasonable differs from being perfect. Id. The Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials in order to give them "fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community's protection." Id. (citing Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 176 (1949)). The limit is that the mistakes must be objectively reasonable. Id. Even when lawful, however, a traffic stop may violate the Fourth Amendment if executed in a manner inconsistent with the protections of the Constitution. Illinois v. Cabelles, 543 U.S. 405, 407 (2005).


         Granbois argues that he lawfully turned from Highway 2 onto 5th Avenue Southwest. (Doc. 22 at 1). Granbois alleges that no signs or other traffic devices prohibit drivers from turning left from Highway 2 onto 5th Avenue Southwest. Id. at 4. Granbois claims that the lack of signs or other traffic devices, combined with traffic laws set forth in the Montana Code Annotated, allow a left turn to be made legally at this intersection. Id. Granbois concludes that the unlawful nature of the traffic stop and the subsequent search of his vehicle violated his Fourth Amendment right. Id. at 6.

         The government argues that Trooper Werner lawfully initiated the traffic stop. (Doc. 31 at 3-8). Trooper Werner testified that based on his training and experience he reasonably believed that Granbois's "movement into the closed median and subsequent left turn violated multiple Montana traffic laws including MCA §§ 61-8-333(3), 61-8-336(1), 61-8-328(3), and 61-8-328(5)." Id. at 2. Accordingly, the government argues that nothing about the traffic stop and the subsequent search of the vehicle violated Granbois's Fourth Amendment rights. Id. at 7-8.

         After hearing oral argument, and after reading over each parties' brief, the legal significance of the painted median and its diagonal yellow lines remains ambiguous. Both parties have failed to offer any conclusive information on the significance of the yellow diagonal lines found at the intersection of Highway 2 and 5th Avenue Southwest.

         The Supreme Court in Helen v. North Carolina, ___ U.S. ___, ___, 135 S.Ct. 530, 536 (2014), determined that the Fourth Amendment allows for objective mistakes of law on the part of government officials. The officer in Helen initiated a traffic stop of a suspicious vehicle due to a faulty brake light. Id. at 534. The officer explained to the driver that he had stopped the car for the brake light, and "that as long as [the driver's] license and registration checked out, [the driver] would receive only a warning ticket for the broken light." Id. The records check revealed no issues, but the officer became ...

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