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Babel v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District

April 18, 2019

DIVA MARIA BABEL, Appellant
v.
THE STATE OF TEXAS, Appellee

          On Appeal from the County Criminal Court at Law No. 2 Harris County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 2110183

          Panel consists of Wise, Jewell, and Poissant

          OPINION

          MARGARET "MEG" POISSANT JUSTICE

         Appellant Diva Maria Babel pleaded "guilty" and was convicted of driving while intoxicated.[1] Before her plea, appellant moved to suppress evidence on grounds that the trooper conducting the traffic stop had no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The trial court denied the requested relief, and appellant now challenges that pretrial ruling. We affirm.

         I. Background

         On September 5, 2016, just before 8:00 p.m., Texas D.P.S. Trooper A. Huayamave was on routine patrol on highway FM 529 in Harris County, Texas. The sky was clear, and traffic was heavy. Huayamave testified that he believed visibility was not less than 1, 000 feet. As shown by State's Exhibit 1, the video from Huayamave's on-board dash camera, [2] almost all the other cars on the roadway had their head lamps illuminated. The street lamps along the roadway were illuminated. Businesses located on the roadway were illuminated by private light poles. Although it was clear, the sky was not brightly lit. The dash camera continuously adjusted to the lighting conditions to accommodate for the decreasing amount of light in the sky.

         The camera began recording around 7:56 p.m., as Huayamave turned onto the roadway; appellant's car was visible in the distance and her headlights were off. Huayamave passed appellant on the roadway while traveling in the same direction as appellant. The headlights and taillights of appellant's car were not illuminated. After passing appellant's vehicle, Huayamave drove ahead, then stopped in the middle of the road in a turn lane. As pointed out on direct examination, only one other car did not have its headlamps illuminated, and passed Huayamave, while he was in the middle lane. Huayamave testified that he may have missed another car traveling past him without lights on because at this point, he was focused on appellant's vehicle. While stopped in the middle lane, Huayamave watched appellant's car to see if she was going to activate her lights. Appellant passed Huayamave's patrol vehicle and did not have her headlights illuminated.

         At 7:56 p.m., Huayamave pulled behind Appellant's car and activated his emergency lights. Appellant immediately began to pull over. Once appellant came to a stop in an adjacent parking lot, Huayamave began his investigation. At 7:58 p.m., Huayamave informed appellant that her front headlamps were not illuminated. Appellant responded in confusion about whether her headlamps were actually activated or not. Appellant never indicated a belief that she was not required to have her headlamps illuminated. Appellant asked Huayamave "so they're, like, completely off?" Huayamave indicated the possibility that the headlamps were "burnt." Huayamave's investigation quickly dispelled this possibility, though, when he reached into appellant's vehicle and manually activated the headlights. At 7:58, Huayamave asked appellant whether she's "doing okay." At 7:59, Huayamave relayed to appellant that he observed her "driving kind of slowly, too." The sky had noticeably darkened since the beginning of the video. Thereafter, the video shows Huayamave administering a series of field sobriety tests and placing appellant under arrest.

         On September 05, 2016, appellant was charged by information with the misdemeanor offense of Class B driving while intoxicated. On June 20, 2017, the State amended the information to reflect a blood alcohol concentration level of at least .15, increasing the offense level to a Class A misdemeanor. Id. On June 23, 2017, the trial court held a hearing on the appellant's motions to suppress. The trial court denied appellant's motions to suppress at the end of that hearing, and appellant pled guilty to the offense of Driving While Intoxicated. Appellant was sentenced to three days in Harris County Jail.

         II. Analysis

         Appellant contends the trial court abused its discretion in denying appellant's motion to suppress and motion to find Sections 541.401(5) and 547.302(a)(1) of the Transportation Code unconstitutional.

         A. Motion to suppress

         In her first issue, appellant contends that the trial court abused its discretion in denying her motion to suppress, on the grounds that Huayamave made a traffic stop for an offense that was not being committed, namely an alleged traffic law violation of driving without headlights at nighttime (i.e., 30 minutes after sunset) or when visibility is less than 1, 000 feet. According to appellant, sunset occurred at 7:37 pm, thus, the earliest time that Huayamave could have pulled appellant over under Section 547.302 of the Texas Transportation Code is 8:07 p.m. Appellant contends that the "arrest was made 7 minutes before the law mandated that appellant turn on her headlights. The stop certainly occurred earlier."

         The State concedes the entire thirty-minute time period had not actually expired at the time Huayamave initiated the stop; however, the State argues that Huayamave had a reasonable, albeit mistaken, suspicion that appellant was committing the crime of failing to display her lights.

         1. Standard of review

         When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, we apply an abuse of discretion standard: we overturn the trial court's ruling only if it is outside the zone of reasonable disagreement. Martinez v. State, 348 S.W.3d 919, 922 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011). We use a bifurcated standard of review. Ramirez- Tamayo v. State, 537 S.W.3d 29, 35 (Tex. Crim. App. 2017). When the record supports the trial court's determination of historical facts, as well as mixed questions of law and fact that rely on credibility, we grant the trial court's determinations almost total deference. State v. Kerwick, 393 S.W.3d 270, 273 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013). We review de novo the trial court's application of the law to the facts. Ramirez-Tamayo, 537 S.W.3d at 35. When, as in this case, the trial judge does not make formal findings of fact, we uphold the trial court's ruling on any theory of law applicable to the case and presume the court made implicit findings in support of its ruling, if the record supports those findings. Tutson v. State, 530 S.W.3d 322, 326 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2017, no pet.).

         Under the Fourth Amendment, an officer must have reasonable suspicion to justify a warrantless detention that amounts to less than a full custodial arrest. Kerwick, 393 S.W.3d at 273. An officer may make a traffic stop if the reasonable-suspicion standard is satisfied. State v. Cortez, 543 S.W.3d 198, 204 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018). An officer has reasonable suspicion if the officer has specific, articulable facts that, combined with rational inferences from those facts, would lead the officer reasonably to conclude that the person detained is, has been, or soon will be engaged in criminal activity. Id. We review reasonable suspicion by considering the totality of the circumstances. Id. This examination is an objective standard that disregards the subjective intent of the officer and requires only some minimal level of justification for the stop. Brodnex v. State, 485 S.W.3d 432, 437 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016). An officer's reasonable mistake does not render a traffic stop illegal. Heien v. ...


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