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State v. Sasso

Supreme Court of Maine

June 28, 2016

STATE OF MAINE
v.
JOHN E. SASSO

          Argued: October 7, 2015

         Hancock County Unified Criminal Docket docket number CR-2014-297

         On the briefs:

          Ezra A.R. Willey, Esq., Willey Law Offices, Bangor, for appellant John E. Sasso

          Matthew J. Foster, District Attorney, and Delwyn E. Webster, Asst. Dist. Atty., Prosecutorial District No. VII, Ellsworth, for appellee State of Maine

         At oral argument:

          Ezra A.R. Willey, Esq., for appellant John E. Sasso

          Delwyn E. Webster, Asst. Dist. Atty., for appellee State of Maine

          Panel: SAUFLEY, C.J., and ALEXANDER, MEAD, GORMAN, JABAR, HJELM, and HUMPHREY, JJ.

          SAUFLEY, C.J.

         [¶1] John E. Sasso appeals from the judgment of conviction entered in the Unified Criminal Docket (Hancock County, R. Murray, J.) following his conditional plea of nolo contendere, pursuant to M.R. Crim. P. 11(a)(2), to the crime of operating after suspension (Class E), 29-A M.R.S. § 2412-A(1-A)(B) (2015). Sasso argues that the court (Mallonee, J.) erred in denying his motion to suppress, contending that the officer's decision to stop his vehicle was pretextual and that the officer had no reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify the stop. We affirm the denial of the motion to suppress and the judgment of conviction.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the court's order denying Sasso's motion to suppress, the record supports the following facts. See State v. Prescott, 2012 ME 96, ¶ 2, 48 A.3d 218. On March 28, 2014, an Ellsworth police officer, who was also part of an underage drinking task force, was on patrol. The officer watched Sasso, who was eighteen at the time, leave a convenience store, get into the driver's seat of a car, and drive away from the store. The night was rainy, and the roads were wet. The officer followed Sasso for a short distance and did not observe any problems with the operation of the vehicle. He did, however, notice a problem with the brake lights on Sasso's car. One of the brake lights appeared to be "stuck on."[1] The officer described the problem of the brake light as "a safety violation." He turned on his blue lights and effected a stop of Sasso's car. Sasso pulled over without incident. Sasso was driving with a license that had been suspended as a result of an OUI conviction, and he was arrested for operating after suspension.

         [¶3] Sasso was charged by criminal complaint with operating after suspension (Class E), 29-A M.R.S. § 2412-A(1-A)(B). He entered a not guilty plea and moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the officer's stop of the vehicle, arguing that the stop was pretextual and that there was no reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify the stop. Regarding the alleged pretext, Sasso argued that the officer thought that Sasso had purchased alcohol at the convenience store, and he hoped to find evidence of underage drinking by stopping the car.

         [¶4] Three people testified at the hearing on the motion to suppress: (1) the officer who stopped Sasso; (2) Sasso's mother, who confirmed that one of the taillights was a bit brighter than the other, perhaps because it was canted at a slightly different angle; and (3) another individual regarding a potential reason for the brighter taillight. At the conclusion of the hearing, the court denied the motion. The court made very brief findings on the record, including the finding that "there's clearly something out of whack with this car." The court made no explicit finding on pretext, determining that the ...


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