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Impaired driving case upheld but judge warns Upper Sioux police about video failure

Anthony LaBatte

UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY — The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld a driving while impaired conviction in Yellow Medicine County which resulted from a traffic stop during which a squad car's video recording device stopped operating.

In a decision issued Monday, the court ruled that the district court in Yellow Medicine County had not erred when it denied a motion by the defense to suppress evidence from the arrest.

However, the ruling came with a warning by Chief Judge Edward Cleary in support of concerns expressed by District Court Judge Thomas Van Hon in this case.

While concurring with the majority in this ruling, Judge Cleary stated that repeated failures of squad car recording equipment by a law enforcement agency could be considered a "practice.'' Whether by intent or negligence, such repeated failures should be considered willful and lead courts to suppress statements obtained from the interrogations, the chief judge wrote.

Defendant Anthony Solon LaBatte, 51, of Granite Falls, appealed his conviction that resulted from the July 2014 traffic stop. He argued that the officer with the Upper Sioux Community police "impermissibly expanded the scope of the traffic stop'' and that he violated a recording requirement.

The video recording device in the officer's squad car began operating when the officer activated the emergency lights to signal LaBatte to stop after observing him roll through a stop sign. The recording device stopped after 4½ minutes due to either a malfunction or because its memory disk was full.

There was no recording of the officer reading LaBatte his Miranda rights at the scene of the arrest, although the officer testified to doing so. A subsequent recording made at the Yellow Medicine County Jail includes a segment in which the officer tells LaBatte he is not going to reread his Miranda rights because he had already done so, the court noted in its ruling.

LaBatte did not object to the statement and the failure of the device to record the complete interrogation did not likely lead LaBatte to misunderstand his legal rights, the Court of Appeals stated. It found that a substantial violation of the recording requirement had not occurred.

The district court had previously ruled similarly. It had found no reason to doubt the good faith of this officer, but admonished the department: " ... the Court is concerned with the repeated failures of recording equipment associated with the Upper Sioux Community Police Department.

"Officers and their departments have an obligation to ensure their recording equipment is properly maintained, in working order, and that enough space is available on storage devices to hold video which should be recorded,'' wrote District Judge Van Hon.

The Court of Appeals also found the officer did not impermissibly expand the scope of the traffic stop when he became suspicious that the defendant was under the influence of a controlled substance. The officer noticed that the defendant's voice was low and raspy and that he had droopy eyelids. He knew LaBatte and had not observed these characteristics in him before.

The officer also observed LaBatte wiping his hands on his pants, and realized from his training that this could be the response of an individual under the influence of a drug that causes increased heart rate and sweating, the ruling states.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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