If an officer’s testimony about a traffic stop is not corroborated by the officer’s cruiser video, how do judges rule on the justification for a traffic stop? Once a judge makes a ruling, under what circumstances might that ruling be overturned by an appellate court? A recent case decided by the Tenth District Court of Appeals in Columbus, Ohio illustrates the discretion judges are given regarding evidentiary issues in OVI motion hearings.
The case of State v. Comer was decided in December of 2014. In Comer, the defendant was charged with OVI and filed a motion to suppress evidence. The motion claimed all evidence obtained after the stop of the defendant’s vehicle should be suppressed because the traffic stop was unconstitutional. At the motion hearing, the officer testified she observed the defendant’s vehicle “weaving and crossing the lines” and “almost hit the concrete divider”.
The video from the officer’s cruiser did not clearly show the defendant’s vehicle crossing the lane line. The defendant argued the video undermined the credibility of the officer, so the judge should find there was no marked lanes violation and therefore no justification for the stop. The prosecution argued the video was inconclusive regarding the marked lanes violation (due to the glare from streetlights and the distance between the cruiser and the defendant’s vehicle), and the officer’s testimony alone was sufficient evidence the defendant crossed the lane line.
The trial judge found, based on the officer’s testimony, there was a marked lanes violation justifying the traffic stop. The defendant plead No Contest and appealed the trial court’s decision to the Tenth District Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of the trial court. The Court’s written opinion characterizes the video as unclear and inconclusive as to whether the defendant’s vehicle crossed the lane line. The opinion then cites previous cases in which trial court decisions were affirmed when traffic violations reportedly observed by officers were not visible on cruiser videos. The opinion explains the trial court was in the best position to determine the officer’s credibility, and the trial court found “no evidence submitted to call into question the truthfulness of the trooper”.
Other appellate courts have reached different conclusions in similar cases in the past few years. In State v. Jarosz, the court of appeals concluded the traffic stop was not justified when the cruiser video disputed the officer’s testimony about pacing the defendant’s vehicle to measure its speed. In State v. Ali, the appellate court concluded the defendant’s motion to suppress was properly granted when the cruiser video showed no marked lanes violation. In State v. Larrick, the court of appeals overturned the defendant’s conviction for OVI because the cruiser video contradicted the officer’s claims regarding marked lanes violations.
Why are the outcomes different in these cases which appear to be very similar? First, the outcome often depends on which party is appealing. On appeal, the appellate court accepts the trial court’s factual findings so long as they are supported by competent, credible evidence. In Jarosz and Ali, the prosecution was appealing the trial judge’s decision, and the appellate courts simply concluded the trial judge’s findings (no marked lanes or speeding) were supported by some evidence. In Comer and the cases its opinion cites, the defendant was appealing, and the appellate courts simply concluded the trial court’s factual finding (there was a traffic violation) was supported by some evidence (the officer’s testimony).
Second, the outcome may depend on whether the cruiser video actually contradicts the officer’s testimony or merely fails to corroborate the officer’s testimony. In most of the cases addressing this issue, including Comer, the video was inconclusive. Larrick is the rare case where the video actually contradicted the officer’s testimony. As a result, the appellate court in Larrick reached the unusual conclusion that the trial court’s findings were not supported by competent, credible evidence.
As these cases demonstrate, trial judges have a great deal of discretion when making findings of fact in OVI motion hearings. Their rulings in this regard will only be disturbed if they abuse that discretion by making findings that have essentially no evidentiary support.