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Britt v. State

Supreme Court of Montana

January 29, 2019

BRIAN SCOTT BRITT, Petitioner and Appellant,
STATE OF MONTANA, Respondent and Appellee.

          Submitted on Briefs: January 9, 2019

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twelfth Judicial District, In and For the County of Liberty, Cause No. DV-17-05 Honorable Daniel A. Boucher, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Jamie Young, Attorney at Law, Havre, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, Brad Fjeldheim, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana

          Robert Scott Padmos, Liberty County Attorney, Chester, Montana


         ¶1 Pursuant to Section I, Paragraph 3(c), Montana Supreme Court Internal Operating Rules, this case is decided by memorandum opinion and shall not be cited and does not serve as precedent. Its case title, cause number, and disposition shall be included in this Court's quarterly list of noncitable cases published in the Pacific Reporter and Montana Reports.

         ¶2 Brian Scott Britt appeals from the order entered by the Twelfth Judicial District Court, Liberty County, denying his petition for reinstatement of his driver's license.

         ¶3 Liberty County Sheriff's Deputy Dallas Gardner was patrolling Highway 2 between Chester and Joplin, Montana, shortly after midnight on April 7, 2017. Traveling eastbound, Gardner observed a truck slow down and almost come to a stop before turning onto Highway 224, without using a turn signal. Gardner likewise turned onto Highway 224 and followed the truck for approximately 150 yards, observing it slowly move back and forth across the center line. Gardner testified that, based on his training and experience, he believed the driver was "possibly impaired" and decided to pull him over for the two traffic violations he had observed-turning without a signal and driving over the center line.

         ¶4 Gardner initiated a stop of the vehicle, identified the driver as Britt, and asked where he was coming from. Britt said he had drunk a couple of beers at a bar in Chester and was now driving home to Rudyard. Gardner testified he found it odd that Britt was reportedly traveling to Rudyard because, prior to the stop, Britt had been traveling away from Rudyard. Gardner noticed Britt's murmured speech and that he would "stall and stop on sentences." He testified Britt "had a droopy facial demeanor" and, when Britt stepped out of the vehicle, appeared to have difficulty balancing, because he continuously leaned against the truck and "bounced into" the deputy when asked to walk to the front of the vehicle. Gardner testified that, at this point, he believed there was reasonable suspicion Britt was impaired, and administered three field sobriety tests, which Britt failed. When Gardner asked Britt again about his alcohol consumption, Britt said he had "too much to drink to be driving." Gardner then informed Britt he would be transported for further testing.

         ¶5 Concerned that his truck would block traffic, Britt asked Gardner for permission to move it out of the way. Gardner allowed Britt to move the truck approximately 15 yards, although testified this was a "wrong decision" and "a lack of judgment," which in hindsight "is not something I would do again." Despite that error, Gardner stated he still believed he had probable cause to arrest Britt for DUI.

         ¶6 During his testimony, Gardner also described an odor of alcohol emanating from Britt while they drove to the Sheriff's office. There, Gardner administered the same three field sobriety tests, which Britt again failed. Gardner then placed Britt under arrest, read him the implied consent form, and asked him to submit to a breathalyzer test. Britt refused the test and his license was ultimately suspended. Britt petitioned for reinstatement of his license and the District Court held a hearing, after which it denied the petition. Britt appeals.

         ¶7 We review a district court's denial of a petition for the reinstatement of a driver's license to determine whether its conclusions of law are correct and whether its findings of fact are clearly erroneous. Kummerfeldt v. State, 2015 MT 109, ¶ 8, 347 P.3d 1233. We presume that the suspension of a driver's license is correct, requiring the petitioner to bear the burden of proving that the State's action was improper. Brunette v. State, 2016 MT 128, ¶ 11, 383 Mont. 458, 372 P.3d 476.

         ¶8 First, Britt argues the District Court erred by finding that Deputy Gardner had reasonable grounds for Gardner's stop of his vehicle. The "reasonable grounds" requirement in § 61-8-403(4)(a)(i), MCA, is equivalent to the "particularized suspicion" that must exist for law enforcement to conduct an investigative stop. Brunette, ¶ 32 (citing Kummerfeldt, ¶ 11). Though we have adopted a two-part test to determine if a police officer had sufficient facts to support particularized suspicion and justify a traffic stop, such an analysis is unnecessary here because "[a] statutory violation alone is sufficient to establish particularized suspicion for an officer to make a traffic stop." State v. Schulke, 2005 MT 77, ¶¶ 12, 16, 326 Mont. 390, 109 P.3d 744 (officer had particularized suspicion to stop a vehicle after observing the defendant commit a statutory violation by slowly drifting back and forth across the center dividing line). Here, Gardner observed Britt commit two statutory violations. See § 61-8-336, MCA (failure to use a signal while turning); and § 61-8-321, MCA (failure to drive on the right side of the roadway). The District Court grounded its finding of particularized suspicion only in Britt's ...

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