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City of Norton v. Wonderly

December 14, 2007

CITY OF NORTON, APPELLEE,
v.
JOSHUA DEAN WONDERLY, APPELLANT.



Appeal from Norton District Court, WILLIAM B. ELLIOTT, judge.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. When reviewing a district court's decision on a motion to suppress, an appellate court reviews the factual underpinnings of the decision under a substantial competent evidence standard. However, the district court's legal conclusion drawn from the evidence is a legal question subject to de novo review.

2. Under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a traffic stop is considered a seizure. A traffic stop requires law enforcement officers to possess reasonable suspicion that the driver of the vehicle is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a crime. A traffic infraction provides an objectively valid reason to effectuate a traffic stop.

3. When a motorist calls a law enforcement agency, identifies himself or herself, gives firsthand information that another vehicle is being driven in a reckless manner, provides a description of the vehicle and the license plate number, and a law enforcement officer locates the reported vehicle within a reasonable time after the call, this information provides the officer with reasonable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to justify stopping the vehicle for further investigation.

4. Under the facts of this case, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity was not dispelled by the fact that the law enforcement officer followed a reported reckless driver for 3 minutes without observing any traffic infractions.

5. A person is considered under arrest by a law enforcement officer when the person is physically restrained or otherwise deprived of his or her freedom of action in any significant way or when he or she submits to the officer's custody for the purpose of answering for the commission of a crime. The test for determining whether a person was placed under arrest is not based on the officer's subjective belief. Rather, the test for whether an arrest has occurred is based on what a reasonable person would believe under the totality of the circumstances surrounding the incident.

6. Under the facts of this case, the law enforcement officer's decision to transport the defendant involuntarily in handcuffs to the sheriff's office to conduct field sobriety tests constituted an arrest.

7. Probable cause for an arrest is a higher standard than reasonable suspicion for a stop. Probable cause to arrest is that quantum of evidence that would lead a reasonably prudent law enforcement officer to believe that guilt is more than a mere possibility.

8. Under the facts of this case, the law enforcement officer arrested the defendant without probable cause to do so, and the evidence seized thereafter violated the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights and must be suppressed.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Malone, J.

Reversed.

Before MALONE, P.J., ELLIOTT, J., and BUKATY, S.J.

Joshua Dean Wonderly appeals his conviction of driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Wonderly claims the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence arising from a traffic stop. We conclude the arresting officer had reasonable suspicion to stop Wonderly's vehicle. However, the officer's decision to transport Wonderly in handcuffs to the sheriff's office to conduct field sobriety tests constituted an arrest without probable cause. Accordingly, the evidence obtained at the sheriff's office must be suppressed and Wonderly's DUI conviction is reversed.

Factual and Procedural Background

On June 24, 2005, at approximately 11 p.m., a motorist and his passenger called law enforcement on his cell phone and reported that a white Chevrolet pickup truck traveling northbound on Highway 283 towards Norton, Kansas, had been swerving, spinning its tires, and traveling at a high rate of speed. The callers told the dispatcher their names, reported the truck's license plate number, and stated that the pickup truck was traveling behind two semitrailer trucks as it approached Norton.

Officer Pat Morel of the Norton Police Department was on routine patrol that evening. He received a call from dispatch, at approximately 11:25 p.m., stating that a white Chevrolet pickup truck traveling northbound on Highway 283 was driving erratically and at a high rate of speed. Dispatch also gave Morel the truck's license plate number and told him that the pickup truck would be following two semitrailer trucks coming into Norton. Morel parked his patrol car at the south edge of Norton in anticipation of the truck's arrival.

At 11:34 p.m., Morel saw two semitrailer trucks travel past him, and then he saw a white pickup truck following behind. The pickup truck made a right-hand turn off Highway 283 and onto a city street. Morel left the parking lot and followed the truck, making sure that its license plate number matched the one given to him by dispatch. Morel ran the tag number, and the results indicated that the truck belonged to Wonderly. After following the truck for 3 minutes, or approximately 3/4 of a mile, and ...


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