The STATE v. LeJEUNE.
The State appeals the trial court's grant of Jodin LeJeune's motion to suppress evidence discovered as a result of a traffic stop. On appeal, the State contends that the trial court erred in granting the motion on the grounds that (1) the police officer lacked reasonable, articulable suspicion to follow LeJeune's vehicle, and the stop of the vehicle was pretextual; and (2) the officer violated department policy when he followed the vehicle. We agree that the trial court erred in granting the motion to suppress and therefore reverse.
At the outset, we note that at a hearing on a motion to suppress, “the trial judge sits as the trier of fact.”1 And when this Court reviews the grant or denial of a motion to suppress, we must construe the evidence “most favorably to uphold the findings and judgment of the trial court, and that court's findings as to disputed facts and credibility must be adopted unless clearly erroneous.”2 However, we owe “no deference to the trial court's conclusions of law” and are instead “free to apply anew the legal principles to the facts.”3
So viewed, the record reflects that at approximately 2:00 a.m. on February 9, 2011, a Gwinnett County police officer was patrolling around the Mall of Georgia area in Buford when he observed LeJeune's vehicle. LeJeune pulled out of the parking lot of a restaurant that, according to the officer, had a reputation in the department for being a frequent source of drivers who were under the influence of alcohol. Accordingly, the officer admitted that he, like other officers, paid particular attention to that specific intersection of the patrol area beginning around 1:30 a.m. The officer also admitted that “other officers” had, in the past, sat in a parking lot across from the restaurant to watch patrons leave and that his lieutenant advised officers against doing this after the restaurant complained of this practice. But the officer testified that he was actually driving in the area on the night in question when he spotted LeJeune.
It is wholly undisputed that when the officer decided to follow LeJeune's vehicle he had committed no traffic offenses and that the officer had no reasonable, articulable suspicion that he was committing or about to commit a crime. The officer followed LeJeune for approximately one-and-a-half to two miles before observing him cross the center line and weave within his lane. At that point, the officer initiated a traffic stop for failure to maintain lane.4
Thereafter, LeJeune was charged by accusation with driving under the influence of alcohol,5 possession of marijuana,6 failure to maintain lane,7 driving under the influence of drugs,8 and driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.9 He moved to suppress the evidence in October 2012 and, after a hearing, the trial court denied the motion and a subsequent motion for reconsideration. Then, just prior to trial, the trial court reversed course and granted LeJeune's motion for the reasons set forth supra. This appeal by the State follows.
1. First, the State argues that the trial court erred in granting LeJeune's motion on the grounds that the officer lacked reasonable, articulable suspicion to follow LeJeune, and that the stop was pretextual. We agree.
Despite LeJeune's arguments to the contrary, there is no support for his position that an officer must have reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has been or is about to be committed prior to even following an individual. To be sure, LeJeune is correct that, “[when] no circumstances at all appear which might give rise to an articulable suspicion (less than probable cause, but greater than mere caprice) that the law has been violated, the act of following and detaining a vehicle and its occupants must be judged as an impermissible intrusion on the rights of the citizen.”10 Nevertheless, our Supreme Court has emphasized that implicit in such cases is that “each case must turn on its own independent circumstances bearing on the issue of reasonableness of the seizure.”11 In other words, as is clear from the holding in those cases themselves, the focus is on the ultimate stop of the individual, not on the “following” that led to the seizure.12
We made this same observation in State v. Wright,13 in which this Court previously addressed and rejected the very argument LeJeune makes in this appeal.14 There, we held that, consistent with the State's ability to practice preventative therapy by means of reasonable road checks,15 “[a] most effective preventive therapy prescription is that of the traffic police merely following citizens who are driving motor vehicles.”16 And the act of following citizens in motor vehicles “is not unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when conducted” within parameters established by the Supreme Court of the United States.17 Accordingly, unless police conduct would, under the totality of the circumstances, “result in an unreasonable seizure, no Fourth Amendment violation warranting evidence suppression occurs.”18
Here, the officer's act of following LeJeune was not a seizure. As in Wright, the only submission to officer authority occurred when LeJeune stopped his vehicle in response to the officer's flashing lights, and the officer only initiated his lights—and the stop itself—after LeJeune failed to maintain his lane,19 at which point the officer had probable cause justifying the stop.20 Accordingly, we agree with the State that the trial court erred in granting the motion to suppress on grounds that the officer's stop was pretextual.21
2. Next, the State argues that the trial court erred in granting the motion to suppress on the ground that the officer's decision to follow LeJeune was a violation of department policy. Again, we agree.
The heart of LeJeune's argument in this regard is that the officer “profiled” him on the basis of his having patronized a restaurant that was known to department officers as being a frequent source of drivers under the influence of alcohol. LeJeune argues that this was a violation of the department's policy prohibiting “bias-based profiling.” However, the very portion of the department policy that prohibits “bias-based profiling” acknowledges that “[p]rofiling, the generation of a set of common traits specific to a pattern of crime, can be a useful tool to officers in carrying out their duties” and specifies that “the selection of individuals based solely on a trait common to a group for enforcement action” is what is disallowed. Accordingly, it appears that this policy is directed at the prevention of targeting individuals on the basis of race, religion, or other such traits, and LeJeune makes no such allegation in the case sub judice.
Additionally, the policy of the department is “to investigate suspicious persons and circumstances, and to actively enforce traffic laws.”22 And citizens will only be stopped or detained when “there exists reasonable suspicion to believe that they have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a violation of the law.”23 Our resolution of the issues in Division 1 forecloses any contention that the officer stopped or detained LeJeune without reasonable suspicion24 and, accordingly, there was no violation of any department policy with an attendant Fourth Amendment violation to warrant application of the exclusionary rule.25
For all the foregoing reasons, we reverse the trial court's grant of LeJeune's motion to suppress.
DOYLE, P. J., and MILLER, J., concur.