When a defendant appeals a DUI conviction (called ‘OVI’ in Ohio), the defendant often claims the judge made an erroneous ruling regarding a motion to suppress. The appellate court then reviews the suppression issue decided by the judge to determine whether the judge’s decision was erroneous. When the issue involves a ‘finding of fact’ by the judge, the appellate court evaluates whether the finding was supported by competent, credible evidence. Two recent Ohio cases illustrate this appellate evaluation with opposite outcomes.
State v. Alvaranga
In State v. Alvaranga, an officer received a report that Alvaranga was driving recklessly. The officer followed the defendant’s vehicle and did not observe any traffic violations. However, the officer smelled the odor of raw marijuana which appeared to be coming from the defendant’s vehicle. The officer was driving about 60 miles per hour with the cruiser windows up and detected the odor through the vents of the cruiser.
The officer stopped the defendant, observed the defendant’s eyes were bloodshot, and administered field sobriety tests. The officer arrested the defendant and charged him with OVI. The defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, claiming the traffic stop was not justified. The judge overruled the motion to suppress, finding the officer’s testimony was credible, and the defendant appealed.
On appeal, the appellate court observed it must accept the trial court’s findings of fact if they are supported by competent credible evidence. As there was no evidence impeaching the believability of the officer’s testimony, the appellate court concluded the judge’s finding that the officer’s testimony was credible was supported by competent, credible evidence. The court further concluded the officer had sufficient evidence to believe the defendant was driving under the influence of marijuana, so the traffic stop was justified.
State v. Consiglio
In State v. Consiglio, an officer stopped Consiglio for a speeding violation and noted that the defendant rapidly decelerated after passing the cruiser. The officer detected a strong odor of alcohol emanating from the vehicle and observed that the defendant’s eyes were glassy. The officer administered field sobriety tests, arrested the defendant, and charged him with OVI.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, claiming the officer administered the sobriety tests incorrectly, and the arrest was not supported by probable cause to believe the defendant was operating a vehicle under the influence. The judge suppressed the results of the field sobriety test but found the officer was justified in arresting the defendant, implicitly finding the officer’s testimony was credible. The defendant appealed.
On appeal, the appellate court disagreed with the judge’s findings. The Court first noted the defendant’s rapid deceleration should not have been considered as evidence of impairment, as the officer acknowledged it is not unusual for motorists to reduce their speed upon noticing a cruiser. The Court then observed the officer’s dash cam video did not support the judge’s conclusions regarding the defendant’s apparent intoxication. The appellate court concluded the judge’s findings were not supported by competent, credible evidence, and there was not probable cause to support an arrest.
When an appellate court reviews a judge’s decision on a motion to suppress, the court evaluates the judge’s decisions on factual issues and legal issues. With regard to factual issues, a judge’s findings will not be disturbed unless they are not supported by competent, credible evidence. These two Ohio OVI cases illustrate that decisions on the legality of traffic stops and arrests are very fact-specific.