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09/10/96 PEOPLE STATE ILLINOIS v. LARRY THOMPSON

September 10, 1996

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LARRY THOMPSON AND MARY THOMPSON, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County. No. 94-CF-406. Honorable David W. Watt, Jr., Judge, presiding.

The Honorable Justice Kuehn delivered the opinion of the court: Goldenhersh, J. concurs. Justice Rarick, dissenting:

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kuehn

JUSTICE KUEHN delivered the opinion of the court:

This is a case where a faulty brake light provided a pretext to stop defendants' van. The defective light cloaked the stop's real purpose. The police wanted to confirm uncorroborated information from an anonymous telephone call.

Patrol officers searched for defendants' van after a radio dispatch from headquarters. The dispatch conveyed information received from an unidentified caller. The officers were told that defendants were headed to Carbondale from Carterville with alcohol and guns in their van. Officers located and followed the van because of the dispatched information.

The van was initially discovered on a heading that contradicted the caller's predicted route of travel. In addition, the caller had not clearly informed of criminal conduct. The manner in which the alcohol and guns were being transported was not spelled out.

The Carbondale police possessed uncorroborated and partially discredited information about defendants. The reliability of the information could be measured only by stopping the defendants, searching the van, and finding alcohol and guns. The police followed the van because of their desire to conduct such a search. They were aware, however, of the legal value of the information they possessed. Consequently, they did not stop the defendants until they detected a traffic violation. They waited for a valid excuse to stop the van.

The police effected a traffic stop for driving with a defective right rear brake light. The stop was not motivated by a desire to enforce the rules of the road. It was motivated by the anonymous tip. The police wanted to check the van for evidence of more serious crimes. The police used the faulty brake light as a pretense to put themselves in a position to see if defendants were illegally transporting alcohol and guns.

The traffic stop matured into a series of nonconsensual searches. As a result of those searches, police found and seized two pistols and a bag of marijuana. Defendants were charged with drug and weapons violations. The trial court suppressed the contraband based on the pretextual nature of the stop. The State appeals.

We must first decide whether the fourth amendment prohibits pretextual traffic stops. In People v. Guerrieri, 194 Ill. App. 3d 497, 551 N.E.2d 767, 141 Ill. Dec. 580 (1990), appeal denied, 132 Ill. 2d 549, 555 N.E.2d 380, 144 Ill. Dec. 261 (1990), this court defined the standard for testing the legitimacy of a traffic stop motivated by reasons other than enforcement of the Illinois Vehicle Code. We stated:

"The proper inquiry is whether a reasonable officer would have made the seizure in the absence of an illegitimate motive." (Emphasis added.) Guerrieri, 194 Ill. App. 3d at 502, 551 N.E.2d at 770, citing United States v. Smith, 799 F.2d 704, 708 (11th Cir. 1986).

This standard for testing the constitutional reasonableness of traffic stops is no longer viable. It has been recently repudiated by the Supreme Court. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. , 135 L. Ed. 2d 89, 116 S. Ct. 1769 (1996).

In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court silenced the argument that traffic offenders may challenge probable cause stops generated by hidden reasons unrelated to enforcing the rules of the road. Whren, 517 U.S. at , 135 L. Ed. 2d at 101, 116 S. Ct. at 1777. Ulterior motives do not invalidate police conduct that is justifiable on the basis of probable cause to believe that a violation of the law has occurred. Whren, 517 U.S. at , 135 L. Ed. 2d at 98, 116 S. Ct. at 1774. The constitutional reasonableness of a traffic stop does not depend on the actual motivations of the police officers involved. Whren, 517 U.S. at , 135 L. Ed. 2d at 98, 116 S. Ct. at 1774.

The defendants operated a van without a working brake light. When this defect was noticed, the police possessed probable cause to believe a traffic law of this state was being violated. Even though the traffic offense masked other reasons for the stop unsupported by probable cause, ulterior motives cannot make otherwise lawful conduct illegal. The pretextual nature of the stop did not invalidate it. The police had probable cause for the stop. The inquiry ends there.

The trial court's order of suppression rested upon our view of fourth amendment protection in a pretextual traffic stop setting. Our view was wrong. The pretextual nature of the stop was an unsound reason upon which to bar the use of evidence. Clearly, the stop shrouded a desire to search. It was, in truth, no more than a means to reach such an end. Nevertheless, the stop was based on probable cause and, therefore, enjoyed constitutional footing. Conduct that conforms with the Constitution, regardless of the motivation, cannot taint the evidence produced. Only conduct that offends the Constitution need be deterred by suppression of its yield.

The trial court found that but for the anonymous tip, unsupported by probable cause, the stop would not have occurred. It found that the stop was a mere pretext to conduct an exploratory search. The defendants were illegally stopped under the standard set forth in Guerrieri. This illegality formed the basis of the suppression order. Therefore, the trial court did not have to ...


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