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State v. Lees

Court of Appeals of Kansas

November 16, 2018

State of Kansas, Appellant,
Aaron Matthew Lees, Appellee.


         1. When the material facts supporting the district court's decision on a motion to suppress evidence are not in dispute, the ultimate question of whether to suppress is a question of law over which an appellate court has unlimited review.

         2. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. A traffic stop is considered a seizure of the driver of the vehicle. To legally perform a traffic stop, a law enforcement officer must have a reasonable suspicion, requiring specific and articulable facts, that the driver committed or is about to commit a crime or traffic infraction. A traffic infraction is an objectively valid reason to effectuate a traffic stop.

         3. A law enforcement officer's objectively reasonable mistake of law by itself does not invalidate a traffic stop provided that the officer otherwise has reasonable suspicion for the stop under the totality of the circumstances.

         4. Interpretation of a statute is a question of law over which appellate courts have unlimited review.

         5. The most fundamental rule of statutory construction is that the intent of the Legislature governs if that intent can be ascertained. An appellate court must first attempt to ascertain legislative intent through the statutory language enacted, giving common words their ordinary meanings. When a statute is plain and unambiguous, an appellate court should not speculate about the legislative intent behind that clear language, and it should refrain from reading something into the statute that is not readily found in its words. Only if the statute's language or text is unclear or ambiguous does the court use canons of construction or legislative history to construe the Legislature's intent.

         6. When construing statutes to determine legislative intent, appellate courts must consider various provisions of the act in pari materia with a view of reconciling and bringing the provisions into workable harmony, if possible.

         7. Courts must interpret a statute in a way that makes it constitutional if any reasonable construction would maintain the Legislature's apparent intent.

         8. K.S.A. 8-1759a authorizes a Kansas highway patrol trooper to stop a vehicle for inspection and to issue a written notice of defect to the driver if the vehicle is in unsafe condition or if any required equipment is missing or is not in proper repair or adjustment.

          Appeal from Sumner District Court; R. Scott McQuin, judge.

          Mitch Spencer, assistant county attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, for appellant.

          C. Ryan Gering, of Hulnick, Stang, Gering & Leavitt, P.A., of Wichita, for appellee.

          Before Standridge, P.J., Malone, J., and Stutzman, S.J.

          Malone, J.

         The State appeals the district court's decision granting Aaron Matthew Lees' motion to suppress. The district court found that a Kansas highway patrol trooper had no legal grounds to stop Lees' vehicle for a brake light violation because the vehicle's brake lights complied with Kansas law. The State claims the trooper's mistake of law about the brake light violation, if he made one, was objectively reasonable, so the mistake did not invalidate the traffic stop. The State also claims the traffic stop was lawful under the trooper's inspection power as authorized in K.S.A. 8-1759a. For the reasons stated below, we reject the State's claims and affirm the district court's judgment.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On July 10, 2017, around 11:13 p.m., Lees was leaving the Kansas Star Casino in Sumner County. Lees was driving and he had a female passenger. Just as Lees was leaving the casino and about to enter the Kansas turnpike, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Reed Sperry pulled him over because his "left-side brake light [was] out." Before informing Lees of the reason for the stop, Sperry instructed him to test his brake and blinker lights to see if they were working. The tests confirmed Sperry's belief that the left brake light was not functioning properly. Lees' vehicle had three separate brake lights, including the standard left and right brake lights, in addition to a top-middle brake light. The right and top-middle brake lights were both functional.

         According to Sperry's arrest report, after he explained the reason for the stop to Lees, he noticed an odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle. Upon inquiry, Lees denied consuming any alcohol, but his passenger admitted to having a couple drinks. Sperry then asked for Lees' driver's license and proof of insurance. He provided an identification card. Sperry ran Lees' information and discovered that he was ...

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