Brunette v. State

Brunette v. State, 2016 MT 128 (May 31, 2016) (Baker, J.; McKinnon, J., dissenting) (5-2, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in denying Brunette’s petition to reinstate his driver’s license. 

Short Answer: No.


Facts: In April 2015, Officer Brotnov was on patrol in Cut Bank. Police department dispatch received a call form an unknown officer to run a license plat check on Burnette’s vehicle, parked on Central Avenue. Sometime later, Officer Brotnov drove past Brunett’e vehicle, at which point Brotnov turned around and drove in the opposite direction. Brotnov and another officer continued to patrol the area, discussing Brunette’s whereabouts. After observing Brunette pull over and change directions twice, officer Brotnov began to follow Brunette, saw him make a right-hand turn without using his turn signal, and initiated a traffic stop.

After observing Brunette’s behavior, and asking him whether he had been drinking, Officer Brotnov administered standardized field sobriety tests, including a portable breath test that indicated a BAC of .143. Officer Brotnov arrested Brunette. At the detention center, Brunette refused the breath test, and his driver’s license was suspended under § 61-8-402, MCA.

Nine days after his arrest, Brunette petitioned for reinstatement of his driver’s license, arguing Officer Brotnov did not have reasonable grounds to stop him. The district court held an evidentiary hearing at which Officer Brotnov testified. Brunette’s counsel questioned the officer about his case report and played the dash cam and body cam video but did not offer any of these items into evidence. 

Procedural Posture & Holding: At the end of the hearing the district court made several oral findings. It expressed concern about the officers’ conduct in running Brunette’s license plate, discussing his whereabouts and possibly targeting this individual. However, the court also found that Brunette did not use his turn signal, and that that plus watery eyes and the portable breath test created reasonable suspicion. In its written order, the district court denied Brunette’s petition, focusing on whether the stop was a pretext. Brunette appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: Under § 61-8-403(4)(a)(i), MCA, the issue presented is whether the officer had reasonable grounds to believe Brunette had been driving or was in actual physical control of a vehicle on state roads open to the public while under the influence of alcohol, and arrested him, after which he refused one or more tests.

Brunette relies on the body cam and dash cam videos, but neither are in the district court record and will not be considered on appeal.

Particularized suspicion for the initial stop is determined under a totality of the circumstances test. Brunette does not dispute that he failed to use his turn signal. A violation of a statute is enough to establish particularized suspicion. Brunette did not testify that the officers’ actions contributed to his failure to use his turn signal, and there is no evidence the officers manufactured reasonable suspicion to create a justifiable traffic stop. Having failed to meet his burden to prove the state acted improperly, the Court concludes that the district court correctly held that the officer had particularized suspicion to stop Brunette. Officer Brotnov also had reasonable grounds to conduct the field sobriety tests based on his observations of Brunette. Further, Officer Brunette had probable cause to arrest Brunette, although it did not make that explicit finding. Relying on the doctrine of implied findings, the Court affirms the district court’s denial of Brunette’s petition.

Justice McKinnon’s Dissent (joined by Wheat, J.): The district court’s findings do not support a determination of particularized suspicion to administer field sobriety tests, which formed the basis for Brunette’s arrest for DUI and subsequent seizure of his license. Indeed, the record does not demonstrate particularized suspicion for DUI until after the administration of the tests. The majority errs in stepping into the shoes of the trial court and making “implied” findings or characterizing statements of the court as “oral findings.” “The District Court does not articulate those facts giving rise to an escalation of the stop and which would establish particularized suspicion for the administration of field sobriety tests and reasonable grounds to believe that Brunette was driving while under the influence.” ¶ 42.