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State v. Anderson

July 29, 2004

STATE OF MINNESOTA, RESPONDENT,
v.
MATTHEW PHILIP ANDERSON, APPELLANT.



Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

Minnesota Statutes § 169.18, subd. 11 (2002), which requires a motorist to move "a lane away" from an emergency vehicle on the side of the road does not require a motorist to provide a lane between the passing vehicle and the emergency vehicle.

A police officer's mistaken interpretation of a statute may not establish the "particularized and objective basis" for suspecting criminal activity that is necessary to justify a traffic stop.

Reversed.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meyer, Justice.

OPINION

A police officer conducted a traffic stop of Matthew Anderson, the appellant, for violating Minn. Stat. § 169.18, subd. 11 (2002), which requires motorists to move "a lane away" from stopped emergency vehicles. During the stop, the officer obtained evidence that was used to charge Anderson with Impaired Driving in the Fourth Degree in violation of Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.20, subd. 1(5), and 169A.27, subd. 1 (2002). Anderson moved to suppress the evidence, claiming that the police officer who stopped him lacked a "particularized and objective basis" for suspecting him of criminal activity because Anderson had, in fact, moved a lane away from the stopped emergency vehicle. The district court suppressed the evidence of impaired driving because it concluded that Anderson was not actually violating Minn. Stat. § 169.18 (2002) when he was stopped. The court of appeals reversed and held that an officer's reasonable interpretation of a statute, whether erroneous or not, may form the basis for an investigatory traffic stop. State v. Anderson, 671 N.W.2d 900, 904 (Minn. 2003). We reverse the court of appeals and reinstate the decision of the district court.

In this case we must decide two issues: (1) Did Anderson fail to move a lane away from the lane where the police officer's car was stopped, and thus violate Minn. Stat. § 169.18, subd. 11? If yes, the traffic stop was legal and the evidence of impaired driving was properly seized; and (2) If Anderson was not in violation of Minn. Stat. § 169.18, subd. 11, may the officer's mistaken belief about the correct interpretation of a traffic law form the particularized and objective basis for suspecting him of criminal activity required to justify a traffic stop?

On February 7, 2003, a University of Minnesota police officer stopped a motor vehicle traveling eastbound on University Avenue S.E. near Walnut Street in Minneapolis. At this location, University Avenue is a one-way street with three lanes of traffic and a paved bicycle lane next to the right curb. The vehicle pulled over to the right and stopped close to the curb. The officer stopped his squad car behind the stopped vehicle with the squad car's emergency lights activated. In doing so, his squad car partially occupied the right lane of traffic. The officer exited his squad car and went to talk to the driver of the stopped vehicle. As the officer was walking back to his squad car from the stopped vehicle, he observed a motor vehicle approaching on University Avenue in the center lane. This vehicle, driven by the appellant Matthew Anderson, had signaled a lane change and moved into the center lane to avoid the officer and his squad car.

Believing that Anderson's vehicle passed too close to him and his stopped squad car, the officer immediately entered his squad car, pursued Anderson, and initiated a traffic stop. The officer informed Anderson that the reason for the stop was the officer's belief that Anderson was in violation of Minn. Stat. § 169.18, subd. 11. He believed that Anderson was in violation of this law because he thought it was illegal for Anderson to pass the stopped squad car without allowing "a buffer lane of traffic" between the two vehicles.

In the course of speaking to Anderson, the officer formed the belief that Anderson was intoxicated and, therefore, a breath test was administered. The results of the test, combined with an admission by Anderson, led the officer to arrest Anderson for impaired driving. The state charged Anderson with Driving While Impaired in the Fourth Degree, in violation of Minn. Stat. §§ 169A.20, subd. 1(5) and 169A.27, subd. 1 (driving with a blood alcohol content of.10 or more). He was not charged with violating Minn. Stat. § 169.18, subd. 11.

Anderson made a motion to suppress the evidence obtained by the officer as a result of the traffic stop, claiming that the officer based the stop on an incorrect interpretation of Minn. Stat. § 169.18, subd. 11, and, therefore, the officer lacked an objective basis to stop Anderson. The district court found that the squad car was stopped completely within the right-hand lane. The court concluded that Minn. Stat. § 169.18, subd. 11, does not require motorists to provide a buffer lane between themselves and parked emergency vehicles. The court concluded that the officer misinterpreted the statute and, therefore, suppressed the evidence of impaired driving because the officer lacked an objective basis for the stop. The court of appeals reversed. State v. Anderson, 671 N.W.2d 900, 904 (Minn. App. 2003). The court stated that the statute was ambiguous, the officer's interpretation of that ambiguous statute was reasonable, and that that interpretation provided an objectively reasonable basis to stop Anderson. Id. at 903-04. We granted Anderson's petition for review.

I.

This case comes to us on an appeal of a district court's pretrial suppression order. When the state appeals such an order, it must show that the ruling was erroneous and that it will have a "critical impact" on its ability to prosecute the case. See State v. Kromah, 657 N.W.2d 564, 566 (Minn. 2003). The parties in this case do not dispute that, if upheld, the district court's ...


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