Judges Opinions, — June 3, 2015 10:10 — 0 Comments

Commonwealth vs. Motter No. CP-38-CR-780-2013

Crimes – Driving Too Closely – Probable Cause – DUI – Appeal from Jury Verdict.

 The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of the vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.

The law does not require rigid answers to a standard set of questions, but rather facts and circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense was committed.

Although Defendant argued on appeal that the Trooper failed to articulate specific facts that would provide probable cause to believe that Defendant was in violation of 75 §3310*1) – Driving Too Closely, in the Court’s opinion, the Suppression Hearing and Jury Trial testimony provided enough information about the incident and surrounding circumstances to conclude that the Trooper had probable cause to pull over Defendant’s vehicle for following too closely. Consequently, Defendant’s appeal was denied.

Opinion. C.P. of Lebanon County, Criminal Division, No. CP-38-CR-780-2013.

Gregory Becker, Esquire for Commonwealth

F. Dean Morgan, Esquire, for Defendant

IN THE COURT OF COMMON PLEAS

LEBANON COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA

CRIMINAL DIVISION

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA NO. CP-38-CR-780-2013

v.

KEVIN MOTTER

ORDER OF COURT

AND NOW, this 15th day of August, 2014, we issue the attached Opinion pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925. We direct the Lebanon County Clerk of Courts to forward this Opinion and the entire file to the Pennsylvania Superior Court as promptly as possible.

BY THE COURT:

BRADFORD H. CHARLES, J.

APPEARANCES

Gregory Becker, Esquire, For Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S OFFICE

F. Dean Morgan, Esquire, For Kevin Motter

THE MORGAN LAW FIRM

OPINION BY CHARLES, J., August 15, 2014

Following a jury trial, Kevin Motter (hereafter “DEFENDANT”) was found guilty on two counts of Driving under the Influence of Alcohol. His charges stemmed from a traffic stop for following too closely to the vehicle in front of him. On appeal, DEFENDANT argues that the arresting officer failed to articulate specific facts that provided him with probable cause to stop DEFENDANT’s vehicle, and therefore any evidence derived from the traffic stop should have been deemed inadmissible at trial. We disagree, and conclude that DEFENDANT’s appeal should be dismissed.

I. FACTS

On March 1, 2013, Trooper John Huffstutler of the Pennsylvania State Police was patrolling the area of Market Street and Lancaster Street in the borough of Jonestown in Lebanon County. N.T. 11/6/2013 pp. 3-4. At approximately 4:35 p.m., he observed a gray Chevrolet Silverado pull out from a stop sign facing south on Lancaster Street onto Market Street. N.T. 4/9/2014 pp. 15-16. DEFENDANT was the driver of the vehicle. The vehicle rapidly accelerated east on Market Street in Jonestown as it approached the rear of a white Nissan Murano traveling in the same direction. N.T. 11/6/2013 p. 4, N.T. 4/9/2014 p. 38. DEFENDANT’s vehicle then began to follow the Nissan at a distance described by Trooper Huffstutler as “not reasonable” based on the speed at which both vehicles were traveling and the fact that the intersection is located on a highway in an urban area. N.T. 11/6/2013 pp. 4-5. He estimated this distance to be approximately five feet. N.T. 11/6/2013 pp. 5-6.

Trooper Huffstutler testified that he was able to observe the distance between the two vehicles because his patrol vehicle was on the roadway traveling behind the two vehicles. N.T. p. 6. He further explained that there were no obstructions hindering his view of the vehicles, and that there was ample sunlight. N.T. 11/6/2013 pp. 6-7. He observed that if there had been an application of the brakes by the driver of the Nissan for any reason, abruptly or otherwise, it would have caused DEFENDANT’s vehicle to collide with it. N.T. 11/6/2013 p. 5. As a result of his observations, he decided to conduct a traffic stop of DEFENDANT’s vehicle for following too closely. N.T. p. 7.

After Trooper Huffstutler approached DEFENDANT’s vehicle, he detected a strong odor of alcohol coming from DEFENDANT’s breath. N.T. 4/9/2014 p. 21. He observed DEFENDANT’s eyes, and testified that they were “bloodshot and glassy.” N.T. 4/9/2014 p. 21. DEFENDANT performed field sobriety tests, which indicated to Trooper Huffstutler that DEFENDANT’s ability to safely operate his vehicle was impaired. N.T. 4/9/2014 pp. 28-29. Trooper Huffstutler placed DEFENDANT under arrest for suspicion of DUI and transported him to the Good Samaritan Hospital for blood testing. N.T. 4/9/2014 p. 29. DEFENDANT agreed to provide a blood sample after hearing his O’Connell Warnings; the blood test later indicated a blood alcohol content of .169%. N.T. 4/9/2014 p. 30.

As a result of the above episode, DEFENDANT was charged with two counts of Driving under the Influence of Alcohol. DEFENDANT filed an Omnibus Pre-Trial Motion to Suppress on August 9, 2013, arguing that Trooper Huffstutler did not develop probable cause to believe that DEFENDANT or his vehicle were in violation of any provision of the Motor Vehicle Code. DEFENDANT explained that the Trooper’s Affidavit reflected DEFENDANT following a “vehicle at a very close distance on Market Street at its intersection with Mulberry Street at a distance that another vehicle of any size would not be able to fit between them”. DEFENDANT argued that such a suspected violation requires more articulation that “traveling less than one car length” from another vehicle to establish probable cause. A Hearing was held on November 6, 2013, after which this Court denied DEFENDANT’s Motion.

A jury trial was held on April 7, 2014. Trooper Huffstutler testified to the details of DEFENDANT’s stop and arrest at trial. Tyson Jefferson, a phlebotomist at the Good Samaritan Hospital, testified to the drawing of DEFENDANT’s blood at the hospital. Kimberly Souder, a forensic scientist with the Pennsylvania State Police, testified to the testing of DEFENDANT’s blood. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on both counts. DEFENDANT was found not guilty of the Summary Offense of Following Too Closely, and guilty of the Summary Offense of Careless Driving. Since this was DEFENDANT’s second time before this Court for a DUI, we sentenced him to 30 days in prison followed by 60 days of house arrest. DEFENDANT was also directed to undergo drug and alcohol counseling throughout the duration of his sentence, as well as to complete the Alcohol Safe Driving Program of Lebanon County.

DEFENDANT appealed to the Superior Court on June 25, 2014, challenging this Court’s decision to overrule his Motion to Suppress. We author this Opinion pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925 to address DEFENDANT’s appeal and explain why our decision to deny DEFENDANT’s Motion to Suppress was the right one.

II. DISCUSSION

DEFENDANT’s sole argument on appeal is that Trooper Huffstutler failed to articulate specific facts that would provide probable cause to believe that DEFENDANT was in violation of 75 § 3310(a) – Driving Too Closely. The relevant portion of the statute reads as follows:

(a) General rule.–The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of the vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway.

75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3310(a). DEFENDANT explains in his Concise Statement that Trooper Huffstutler failed to describe important factors, such as the speed and distance traveled by both vehicles, as well as additional relevant factors such as the number of other vehicles present on the roadway. After a review of both the Jury Trial testimony and the Suppression Hearing testimony, we disagree with DEFENDANT’s position. We find that Trooper Huffstutler’s decision to stop DEFENDANT’s vehicle was based upon probable cause in light of his testimony.

Trooper Huffstutler’s testimony indicates that he witnessed DEFENDANT’s vehicle traveling five feet behind the Nissan on Market Street – a local highway. He also testified to several relevant details about the surroundings and conditions of the road. He testified that the incident occurred around 4:30 p.m. on a Friday during rush hour, and there was ample sunlight. He described Market Street as a very wide road, with business and residences on both sides of this particular part of the street. He noted that there were parking areas on both sides of the road where customers of the businesses park. He noted that the roadway was dry. As he drove behind the two vehicles, he was able to move to the left and right and view the relative positions of each vehicle. He explained that there were no obstructions blocking his view at any point.

Trooper Huffstutler did not articulate the exact speed at which he witnessed the vehicles traveling, but he did note that traffic was flowing on Market Street “because there is no stop sign or yield sign prohibiting traffic from moving through.” N.T. 4/9/2014 p. 15. He explained that DEFENDANT turned onto Market Street and accelerated “at an unreasonably high rate of speed,” thereby closing the gap between his vehicle and the Nissan. He further testified that in his opinion, if the Nissan were to have tapped on its brakes, there would have been no way for DEFENDANT to avoid a collision based on the relative speed and position of the vehicles. All of this testimony, taken together, indicates that both vehicles were traveling at such a speed that DEFENDANT’s vehicle could not be safely controlled at a distance of five feet behind the Nissan.

DEFENDANT’s tailgating is precisely the type of behavior prohibited by § 3310(a) of the Vehicle Code. In our opinion, Trooper Huffstutler observed and reacted exactly as was required of him in order to enforce the statute. As we stated at DEFENDANT’s Suppression Hearing, patrolling officers do not have the benefit of a device that can pinpoint exactly how far apart vehicles are on the roadways. The law does not require rigid answers to a standard set of questions, but rather facts and circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person to believe that an offense was committed. Stated frankly, how else are police officers supposed to enforce this statute other than by observing the vehicles and the surrounding circumstances and then making a subjective determination that the distance between the vehicles is not reasonable?

In our opinion, the Suppression Hearing and Jury Trial testimony provide enough information about the incident and surrounding circumstances to conclude that Trooper Huffstutler had probable cause to pull over DEFENDANT’s vehicle for following too closely. As such, DEFENDANT’s appeal should be denied.

 

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