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State v. Kirk

November 21, 2008


Appeal from McPherson District Court; RICHARD B. WALKER, judge.


A conviction for possession of narcotics in violation of the former K.S.A. 65-4127a cannot be used as a prior conviction under the present K.S.A. 65-4161, which prohibits possession of narcotics with intent to sell or distribute. Only past convictions for possession with intent to sell or distribute may be used to enhance a sentence under K.S.A. 65-4161.

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

Affirmed in part, sentence vacated, and remanded with directions.


Melvin L. Kirk drove a vehicle with windows tinted darker than allowed by Kansas law. A highway patrol trooper stopped Kirk's vehicle to perform a glass-transparency test that revealed Kirk's windows had a transparency of only 4%, far below the minimum legal transparency of 35%. While investigating the window tint, Kirk smelled marijuana and air fresheners from within the car. Based on that, he detained Kirk until a drug-dog could check further. Contraband was found, and Kirk was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute as a third offense and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

Kirk now appeals the district court's denial of his motion to suppress the contraband found in his vehicle. Kirk first contends that the officer didn't have reasonable suspicion of illegal conduct to stop him or probable cause that a crime had been committed that would authorize searching the vehicle. But it is illegal to drive a car in Kansas with nearly opaque windows, and the district court found that the trooper had a valid basis to stop the vehicle. The district court also found that the trooper had probable cause to search the vehicle based upon the smell of marijuana. The evidence factually supports the district court's conclusions on both points; they're also legally correct.

Kirk separately argues that his sentence for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute or sell was wrongly treated as a third conviction; he argues that his 1977 conviction for mere possession of cocaine should not have counted as a prior offense. In 1977, both possession and possession with intent to sell or distribute were together in a single statute so that simple possession was a prior offense for a later possession with intent to sell conviction and vice versa. But the legislature separated the offenses into different statutory sections in 1994--and the legislature provided in each of these distinct statutes that prior offenses must be "under this section" to count. Kirk is thus correct that his 1977 possession conviction does not count as a prior offense under the present statute for possession with intent to sell or distribute.

I. The District Court Properly Denied Kirk's Motion to Suppress Evidence Because the Trooper Had a Reasonable Suspicion That Kirk's Windows Were Illegally Tinted and Probable Cause to Search the Vehicle Based Upon the Odor of Marijuana

A law-enforcement officer must have a reasonable suspicion that a law is being violated to stop a vehicle, and that suspicion must be based upon articulable facts. K.S.A. 22-2402; State v. Kotas, 35 Kan. App. 2d 769, 773-74, 134 P.3d 677 (2006). On a defense motion to suppress evidence, the State has the burden of proof to show that the search or seizure was lawful. State v. Ibarra, 282 Kan. 530, 533, 147 P.3d 842 (2006). On appeal, though, we must accept the factual findings of the district judge when substantial evidence supports them. We then review the ultimate legal conclusion drawn from those facts de novo, which means that we are not required to give deference to the legal conclusions of the trial judge. State v. Hill, 281 Kan. 136, 140, 130 P.3d 1 (2006).

Kirk argues that the State didn't present evidence that the trooper had received special training in detection of window-tint violations. Thus, Kirk contends that the officer had no reliable basis upon which to form reasonable suspicion of violation of the window-tinting statute, K.S.A. 8-1749a. The trooper who stopped Kirk did testify that his suspicion was "based upon training and experience in enforcing [the window-tint law.]"

We judge an officer's conduct in forming reasonable suspicion "in light of common sense and ordinary human experience." State v. Toothman, 267 Kan. 412, Syl. ¶ 4, 985 P.2d 701 (1999). There's a substantial difference between windows that are only 4% transparent and ones that are at the legal minimum transparency of 35%. The district court accepted the trooper's testimony; we find the evidence was sufficient to show reasonable suspicion of a violation of the window-tint statue. As an Ohio court properly noted, "Neither the concepts of probable cause nor 'articulable suspicion' would require that an officer have tint meter readings before making a stop for a window tint violation." State v. Polk, 2008 WL 186660, at ¶¶ 18-19 (Ohio App. 2008) (unpublished opinion) (quoting and approving statement of trial judge); see also United States v. Leal, 235 Fed. Appx. 937, 938-39 (3d Cir. 2007) (upholding traffic stop based solely on officer's observation of apparent violation of window-tint law).

We note that the officer had reasonable suspicion of another potential traffic-law violation: failure to maintain a single lane as required by K.S.A. 8-1522(a). The trooper observed Kirk's vehicle drift over the white fog line and briefly travel with two wheels on the gravel outside the traffic lane. That appears to violate K.S.A. 8-1522(a), which requires that "[a] vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane . . . ." We recognize, however, that a panel of our court has determined that K.S.A. 8-1522(a) is only violated when a vehicle leaves the lane of traffic at a time when that move "cannot be made with safety." State v. Ross, 37 Kan. App. 2d 126, Syl. ¶¶ 7-8, 149 P.3d 876 (2007), rev. denied 284 Kan. 950 (2007). Another panel of our court has rejected that view and concluded that K.S.A. 8-1522(a) only allows a driver to leave the lane of travel "due to special circumstances such as weather conditions or an obstacle in the road." State v. Marx, 38 Kan. App. 2d 598, 608, 171 P.3d 276 (2007), rev. granted April 23, 2008. We find that it is unnecessary in this case to choose between the views of the panels in Ross and Marx because the officer had reasonable grounds to stop Kirk's vehicle based solely on reasonable suspicion of violation of the window-tint statute.

The district court based its finding that the trooper had probable cause to hold Kirk for the drug dog--and ultimately to search the vehicle--on the officer's detection of the odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. The Kansas Supreme Court has held that the odor of marijuana coming from a vehicle, when detected by an experienced law-enforcement officer, can provide probable cause to search the passenger compartment of that vehicle. State v. MacDonald, 253 Kan. 320, 325, 856 P.2d 116 (1993); see also State v. Dixon, No. 98,881, unpublished opinion filed April 18, 2008, rev. denied 286 Kan. ___ (2008) (reversing district court's order suppressing evidence and finding that experienced officer's detection of odor of raw marijuana coming from car was sufficient basis for probable cause to search vehicle); State v. Delgado, 36 Kan. ...

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