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State v. Moore

Superior Court of Delaware

March 16, 2017

STATE OF DELAWARE
v.
ISAIAH MOORE, Defendant.

          Date Submitted: March 10, 2017

         Upon Defendant's Motion to Suppress: DENIED.

          Phillip M. Casale, Deputy Attorney General, Delaware Department of Justice, 820 North French Street, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for the State.

          Kevin J. O'Connell, Esquire, 820 North French Street, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorney for Defendant.

          OPINION

          Jan R. Jurden President Judge

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Defendant Isaiah Moore was driving a motor vehicle in Wilmington when the police stopped his vehicle for a suspected window tint violation. Defendant moves to suppress a firearm the police discovered after a search of the vehicle, as well as all statements made by Defendant as a result of the search.[1] For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion to Suppress is DENIED.

         II. FACTS

         On August 10, 2016, at around 1:30 a.m., Wilmington Police Officers Wiggins and Moses were patrolling in the northern section of Wilmington when they observed a vehicle with heavily tinted windows pass them as it was heading in the opposite direction. The police were unable to see inside the vehicle or determine how many occupants were in the vehicle due to the dark tint. Before stopping the vehicle for a suspected window tint violation, the police checked DELJIS to see if the vehicle had a medical tint waiver. It did not. The police made a U-turn and conducted a traffic stop.

         At the time of the stop, Officer Wiggins believed that any window tint without a medical waiver constituted a violation of 21 Del. C. § 4313. At the suppression hearing, Officer Wiggins conceded that his understanding of 21 Del. C. § 4313 at the time of the stop was inaccurate, but testified that he would have stopped the vehicle had he known the correct standard ("the 70 percent light rule")[2] because he "couldn't see through the window at all. It was heavily tinted."

         The police discovered two occupants in the vehicle: the driver, Defendant Isaiah Moore, and the passenger, Kevin White. Mr. White had an outstanding capias for his arrest, and the police immediately took him into custody. After determining that Defendant did not have a valid license and was unable to produce a registration card for the vehicle, the police removed him from the vehicle. Officer Wiggins testified he asked Defendant for consent to search the vehicle, and Defendant consented. Defendant denies Officer Wiggins requested consent to search and denies he consented. During the search, the police discovered a 9 mm firearm under the third row seat. The police transported Defendant, Mr. White, and the vehicle back to the Wilmington Police Department.

         As a result of the traffic stop and subsequent search of the vehicle, Defendant was charged with Possession, Purchase, Ownership, or Control of a Firearm by a Person Prohibited (2 counts), Carrying a Concealed Deadly Weapon, Receiving a Stolen Firearm, Driving Without a License, Driving Without a Valid Registration Plate, and Aftermarket Window Tint Without Certificate.

         III. PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

         Defendant argues that because Officer Wiggins mistakenly thought that any window tint, without a medical waiver, violated 21 Del. C. § 4313, he did not have a reasonable basis to conclude that Defendant violated the traffic code. Defendant further argues that because the stop took place at night, the officers could not see inside the vehicle regardless of the degree of window tint, and therefore, they could not reasonably suspect a tint violation based on their inability to see inside. Defendant asserts that the firearm, as well as all statements made by Defendant, must be suppressed because the illegality of the stop taints any consent to search the vehicle.[3] Finally, Defendant maintains that he did not consent to the search.[4]

         The State argues that although Officer Wiggins' "subjective impression of 21 Del. C. § 4313" was inaccurate at the time of the stop, there were "objective facts available and known to" Officer Wiggins that established a reasonable suspicion that Defendant's vehicle violated 21 Del. C. § 4313.[5] With regard to consent to search, the State relies on Officer Wiggins' testimony that Defendant gave his consent.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A police officer may detain an individual if he or she has reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity.[6] Reasonable articulable suspicion exists when a police officer can "point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant the intrusion."[7] Reasonable articulable suspicion "must be evaluated in the context of the totality of the circumstances as viewed through the eyes of a reasonable, trained police officer in the same or similar circumstances, combining objective facts with such an officer's subjective interpretation of those facts."[8] Reasonable articulable suspicion "is a less demanding standard than probable cause and requires a showing considerably less than preponderance of the evidence ... ."[9] Pursuant to 21 Del. C. § 2144(a), a police officer may "upon reasonable cause, " stop a vehicle to investigate a possible equipment defect.

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. Vehicle Window Tint

         The window tint law in Delaware is not straightforward and requires some hopscotch. Chapter 21, Section 4313(a) of the Delaware Code provides:

No person shall operate any motor vehicle on any public highway, road or street with the front windshield, the side windows to the immediate right and left of the driver and/or side wings forward of and to the left and right of the driver that do not meet the requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205 in effect at the time of its manufacture.

         Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205 is set forth in 49 C.F.R. § 571.205. As stated in § 571.205, the purpose of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205 is "to reduce injuries resulting from impact to glazing surfaces, to ensure a necessary degree of transparency in motor vehicle windows for driver visibility, and to minimize the possibility of occupants being thrown through the vehicle windows in collisions." Section 571.205 requires glazing materials for use in motor vehicles to "conform to ANSI/SAE Z26.1-1996... unless this standard provides otherwise."[10] As noted by the Court in State v. Wilson, "[t]he federal regulation on which the state regulation is based is virtually incomprehensible, " and "it is almost impossible to identify the point at which after-market tinting becomes excessive."[11]

         Recognizing the unwieldiness of § 4313's incorporation of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205, the Delaware Department of Transportation ("DelDOT") promulgated 2 Del. Admin. C. § 2277.[12] Section 2277 explains that the regulation is necessary to provide DelDOT "a more definitive method in which to determine which products or materials are acceptable at the time of the vehicle safety inspection" and "to assist police officers in enforcing the law."[13] Section 2277 assists police officers in enforcing the law by clarifying that window tint "must provide [] light transmission of not less than 70 percent" ("the 70 percent light rule").[14] Section 4313 provides an exception for those in possession of "a statement signed by a licensed practitioner of medicine and surgery or osteopathic medicine or optometry verifying that tinted windows are medically necessary for the owner or usual operator."[15]

         B. Reasonable Articulable Suspicion

         Defendant contends that because Officer Wiggins was mistaken about the degree of tint prohibited by Delaware law, his suspicion was not (and could not) be objectively reasonable. In support of this argument, Defendant relies on State v. Coursey[16] In Coursey, a police officer observed a vehicle traveling parallel to his patrol car with dark tinted windows.[17] The vehicle made an abrupt turn into a parking lot, whereupon the officer followed the vehicle into the parking lot and activated his lights.[18] Coursey submitted to the stop by parking in a handicapped parking spot.[19] As a result of the stop, Coursey was charged with multiple offenses, including a window tint violation.[20] Coursey moved to suppress evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop, and at the suppression hearing, the officer testified the basis for the stop was his observation that the tinted windows concealed all the occupants in the vehicle.[21] When the Court asked the State to identify the standards that apply to the enforcement of § 4313(a), the Court found the State's response incomplete and inaccurate, noting it raised "a question of candor."[22] The Court was similarly unimpressed by the State's assertion that parking in a handicapped parking space constituted an additional basis for the stop because Coursey pulled into the handicapped parking spot in order to submit to a police vehicle with activated lights.[23] The Court specifically found as fact that Coursey pulled into the handicapped parking spot only after the officer activated his lights, "thereby eliminating the parking location as a basis for the stop."[24]Further, the officer who stopped Coursey did not fare well under a withering cross examination by defense counsel, thus eroding his credibility with the Court.[25] The Court suppressed the evidence, concluding, "[f|ailure to understand the law by a person charged with enforcing it is not objectively reasonable.... I find that the officer did not have reasonable articulable suspicion based on fact and law."[26]

         Delaware courts have twice discussed the holding in Coursey, first in State v. Trower[27] and again in Stevens v. State.[28] In Trower, a police officer on patrol noticed a vehicle with dark tinted windows that prevented the officer from seeing the occupants inside.[29] He stopped the vehicle for a suspected window tint violation.[30] The defendant moved to suppress evidence seized as a result of the stop, arguing that reasonable articulable suspicion of a window tint violation must be based on an observation from inside the vehicle looking out.[31] The defendant argued that, depending on lighting conditions inside or outside the vehicle, there could be a very significant difference in one's ability to see into the vehicle versus one's ability to see out.[32] Therefore, according to the defendant in Trower, a window tint violation is unenforceable except as a secondary offense (whereby the officer could examine the windows from inside after a traffic stop based on a different offense) because inability to see through the windows from the outside does not provide a reasonable basis to believe the window tint statute is being violated.[33] The Court in Trower rejected all of the defendant's arguments, stating:

It is true that the defendant could see out of the windows, because he was able to operate the vehicle on the roadway without running off the road. The defendant's contentions, however, are based upon an undue emphasis on the purpose of the federal standard, as opposed to the standard itself. The fact that the driver can see out of tinted windows does not establish that they allow 70% or more of light transmission, or rule out a reasonable suspicion that they do not.
The contention that the officer must look at the windows from inside the vehicle before he can be reasonably suspicious that they violate the standard is unpersuasive. "Reasonable suspicion" is not a demanding standard. It is less than probable cause and considerably less than preponderance of the evidence. The State's contention, that a reasonable suspicion of a violation arises ...

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