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United States v. Meadows

United States District Court, D. Utah, Central Division

November 26, 2018



          Clark Waddoups, United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court on a Motion to Suppress filed by defendant Kimberly Sue Meadows. Ms. Meadows' vehicle has a third brake light on the interior side of the rear window. The rear window is tinted, which results in the brake light being tinted as well. A Utah Highway Patrol Trooper stopped Ms. Meadows on the basis that a tinted brake light constitutes an equipment violation. During the stop, the trooper found methamphetamine, cocaine, and drug paraphernalia. Ms. Meadows moves to suppress this evidence, and any statements she made related to the stop, on the ground the initial stop was unlawful. For the reasons stated below, the court denies the Motion to Suppress (ECF No. 19).


         On December 4, 2017, Ms. Meadows was driving on I-70 when Trooper Christopher Terry observed her 1993 sedan. The sedan had a tinted rear window, with a third brake light on the interior side of that window. Trooper Terry stopped Ms. Meadows on the basis that a tinted brake light is an equipment violation under “Windows Section 9, subsection 2(f) of the Utah Safety Inspection Manual.” He then issued a warning citation for operating an unsafe and improperly equipped vehicle in violation of Section 41-6A-1601(1) of the Utah Code. See Warning Citation (Gov't Ex. 3).

         During the stop, Trooper Terry noted that Ms. Meadows' vehicle was registered in California, but she lived in Colorado. When Ms. Meadows gave other conflicting information, Trooper Terry became suspicious of criminal activity and deployed his Police Service Dog to conduct an exterior sniff of the vehicle. The dog alerted, and Trooper Terry found 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, 500 grams or more of cocaine, and drug paraphernalia. Ms. Meadows moves to suppress this evidence, along with all of her statements, on the ground that the initial stop was illegal.

         The court held an evidentiary hearing on March 1, 2018, during which a video recording was played showing the initial stop. The recording showed that the brake light was visible and functioning at the time of the stop, but it was covered by the tinted rear window. The facts of the initial stop are not in dispute, and Ms. Meadows does not challenge any other portion of the stop. The parties agree the outcome of this motion will turn on the court's interpretation of the law.


         At the March 1, 2018 hearing, the court set a briefing schedule and time for oral argument. Since that time, the issues in the case have been evolving. In her first memorandum, Ms. Meadows made the following arguments: “(1) she did not violate any Utah traffic laws; (2) the rules and regulations governing safety inspections are categorically different from traffic laws and unenforceable as such; and (3) Trooper Terry made an unreasonable mistake of law.” Memo in Supp., at 3 (ECF No. 27). With respect to her first argument, Ms. Meadows contends she did not violate Section 41-6a-1601(1) because her vehicle was not in an unsafe or improper condition at the time of the stop. As to her second argument, Ms. Meadows contends United States v. Rosvall, 651 F.Supp.2d 1274 (D. Utah 2009) precludes stops for violations under the Utah Vehicle Safety Inspection Manual. Finally, Ms. Meadows contends Trooper Terry did not make a reasonable mistake of law because Section 41-6a-1601, as clarified by Section 41-6a-1604, is unambiguous and Trooper Terry should have known a safety inspection violation cannot be the ground for a traffic stop.

         At oral argument on August 16, 2018, Ms. Meadows then asserted an additional argument that Utah had decriminalized its traffic code, and therefore the stop could not be based upon an equipment violation. Because the issue was newly raised, the court allowed time for supplemental briefing.

         In her supplemental memorandum, Ms. Meadows made two arguments. First, she made a “facial challenge to Utah's statutory scheme” because “it allows an officer to ‘stop, inspect, and test' a motor vehicle for a non-criminal offense.” Supp. Memo in Support of Mot. to Suppress, at 1 (ECF No. 37). Ms. Meadows asserts that, effective May 2017, infractions under Section 41-6a-1601 were decriminalized by the Utah Legislature to something less than an infraction. And, any stop based on something less than an infraction upsets the proper balance for search and seizures. Second, Ms. Meadows argued that stopping an out-of-state vehicle for a violation of a Utah equipment law may also violate the Commerce Clause.

         Following briefing, the court set final oral argument for October 25, 2018. Shortly before the hearing, defense counsel notified the court and government that Ms. Meadows also challenged the validity of Utah's vehicle safety inspection rules on the basis that they had not been passed in accordance with the requirements of Utah Code § 63G-3-201(5)(a). In particular, Ms. Meadows asserted the safety inspection rules are invalid because they fail to state the penalty for a violation of the rules as required by law. Initially, the government reserved the right to brief the newly raised issue, but after oral argument, it submitted the matter to the court. The court has taken each of the arguments under advisement and now issues this decision.



         A. Utah's Traffic Code

         Ms. Meadows contends she did not violate the Utah Traffic Code because she operated her vehicle in compliance with Section 41-6a-1601(1)(a) of the Utah Code. The relevant provisions of that Section are as follows:

(1)(a) A person may not operate or move . . . on a highway a vehicle . . . which: . . .
(ii) does not contain those parts or is not at all times equipped with lamps and other equipment in proper condition and adjustment as required in this chapter; [or]
(iii) is equipped in any manner in violation of this chapter . . . .

Utah Code Ann. § 41-6a-1601(1)(a) (emphasis added). The chapter at issue is Chapter 6a, which is entitled “Traffic Code.” Part 16 pertains to Vehicle Equipment and Section 1601 et seq. refers to particular equipment requirements. Ms. Meadows asserts Section 41-6a-1604 sets the conditions for brake lights and nothing in that section prohibits a tint over a third brake light. It is correct that tinted brake lights are not expressly addressed in that section. The section does require, however, that each stop lamp “comply with the requirements and limitations established under Section 41-6a-1601.” Id. § 41-6a-1604(4)(a) (emphasis added).

         While Section 41-6a-1601 also does not specifically address tinting over a third brake light, it does direct the following:

In accordance with Title 63G, Chapter 3, Utah Administrative Rulemaking Act, and in coordination with the rules made under Section 53-8-204, the department shall make rules setting minimum standards covering the design, construction, condition, and operation of vehicle equipment for safely operating a motor vehicle on the highway as required under this part.

Id. § 41-6a-1601(2)(a) (emphasis added). The reference to “the department” means the Department of Public Safety (the “Department”). Id. ยง 41-6a-102(10). The Legislature therefore delegated authority to the Department to make specific rules for equipment standards and any such rules are ...

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