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State v. Akers

Court of Appeals of Iowa

March 7, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
NATHANIEL SCOTT AKERS, Defendant-Appellant.

         Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Linn County, Nicholas Scott, District Associate Judge.

         A defendant appeals his conviction for possession of marijuana, second offense.

          Mark C. Smith, State Appellate Defender, and Mary K. Conroy, Assistant Appellate Defender, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, and Kelli A. Huser, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          Considered by Tabor, P.J., McDonald, J., and Carr, S.J. [*]

          TABOR, Presiding Judge.

         Nathaniel Akers appeals his conviction for possession of marijuana, second offense. He argues the district court should have suppressed the marijuana because the police officer did not have probable cause to stop his car. After carefully reviewing the video-recording of the traffic stop, we agree the officer did not have probable cause to believe Akers was violating the rear-lighting statute at the time the officer signaled him to stop. Accordingly, we reverse the suppression ruling.

         Cedar Rapids police officer Nathan Baughan was part of a "selective enforcement project" assigned to "monitor traffic flow" on the southeast side of the city around 10:45 p.m. when he saw a green 1973 Buick LeSabre drive south at the 100 block of Fifteenth Street, the same direction the marked squad car was facing. Officer Baughan testified neither the Buick's driver nor the passenger was wearing a safety belt. The officer also testified that as he followed the Buick, he noticed "it had a taillight out." The officer further testified that when the Buick stopped at the stop sign at Fifteenth Street and Second Avenue he could see the driver's side brake light "was out as well."

         The officer caught up with the Buick at the intersection of Fifteenth Street and Seventh Avenue and activated his lights and sirens, signaling the driver to stop. According to the officer, the Buick travelled about two-and-a-half blocks before pulling over into "a proper parking spot." As the driver parked the car, he also honked his horn. The officer testified that the driver, Akers, and his passenger "then exited the vehicle and started towards the address where it later turned out that the driver actually lived." But the video from the officer's dashboard camera does not show Akers moving away; rather it shows Akers walking toward the back of his Buick to meet the officer where they appear to discuss the rear lamps.[1]Officer Baughan then ordered Akers back to the driver's seat and expressed his displeasure concerning Akers's decision to sound his horn.

         Officer Baughan testified that when he "engaged the driver in conversation" he could "plainly" smell fresh marijuana coming from either Akers or the car. Officer Baughan also testified Akers "had marijuana on his person" and "actually turned that over to me" by pulling it from his pocket. But the minutes of testimony indicate the officer handcuffed Akers and took the marijuana from his pocket. The marijuana weighed approximately eight grams. Akers told Officer Baughan he had just purchased the marijuana and planned to smoke it.

         Officer Baughan testified Akers asked why he was stopped, and Officer Baughan "informed him both his taillight and his brake light and his seatbelt." Officer Baughan recalled Akers saying he didn't think he needed to wear his seatbelt because "his car was a 1973." The officer testified he "corrected" Akers, saying every vehicle manufactured after 1970 must have a shoulder and lap belt. Defense counsel cross-examined the officer about the source of his belief concerning the safety belt guidelines and directed the officer to Iowa Code section 321.445(1) (2016). The officer acknowledged on cross-examination he was not able to determine if the Buick was equipped with a shoulder harness until he "actually did the inspection of the vehicle."

         At the suppression hearing, defense counsel submitted a video of the traffic stop. Defense counsel argued:

Upon review of that video, I believe that it's clear that there were no lights out on this vehicle. I will leave that for the Court to review the video or make that determination factually, but I don't believe the video evidence supports the testimony of Officer Baughan in regards to lights being out on this particular vehicle.

         As for the seatbelt issue, counsel argued the officer was operating under a ...


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