Made available by Touch N' Go Systems, Inc. and
Law Offices of James B. Gottstein.
406 G Street, Suite 210, Anchorage, AK 99501
(907) 274-7686 fax 333-5869

You can of the Alaska Court of Appeals opinions.

Touch N' Go®, the DeskTop In-and-Out Board makes your office run smoother. Visit Touch N' Go's Website to see how.

Chase v. State (12/3/2010) ap-2283

Chase v. State (12/3/2010) ap-2283

        The text of this opinion can be corrected before the opinion is published in the 
        Pacific Reporter.   Readers are encouraged to bring typographical or other formal 
        errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts: 

                              303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska  99501
                                        Fax:   (907) 264-0878
                         E-mail:  corrections @


                                                            Court of Appeals No. A-10433 
                                Appellant,                 Trial Court No. 4FA-07-2939 Cr 

                                                                    O   P  I  N  I  O  N 

                                Appellee.                  No. 2283    -   December 3, 2010 

                Appeal     from   the  District   Court,   Fourth   Judicial   District, 
                Fairbanks, Raymond M. Funk, Judge. 

                Appearances:      Robert     John,  Law    Office   of  Robert   John, 
                Fairbanks, for the Appellant.   Ann B. Black, Assistant Attorney 
                General,     Office    of   Special    Prosecutions     and   Appeals, 
                Anchorage, and Daniel S. Sullivan, Attorney General, Juneau, 
                for the Appellee. 

                Before:    Coats,    Chief  Judge,   and  Mannheimer      and   Bolger, 

                MANNHEIMER, Judge. 

                Steven L. Chase was driving in Fairbanks when a state trooper pulled him 

over because Chase was not wearing his seatbelt.             During this traffic stop, the officer 

discovered that Chase should not have been driving at all; Chase's driver's license was 

----------------------- Page 2-----------------------

canceled.  Chase was subsequently convicted of driving with a canceled driver's license 
and driving without his seatbelt fastened. 1           He appeals his convictions, arguing three 

different theories as to why his convictions are unlawful. 

                Chase first argues that Alaska's seatbelt law is unconstitutional because it 

is an unjustified infringement of the rights of personal autonomy and liberty guaranteed 

by Article I, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution. 

                Chase next argues that, even if Alaska's seatbelt law is constitutional as a 

general matter, the police officer in Chase's case engaged in an unreasonable seizure 

(that is, a seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution and 

Article I, Section 14 of the Alaska Constitution) when the officer pulled Chase over to 

give him a citation for failing to wear his seatbelt. 

                Chase acknowledges that, under AS 12.25.030(a) and AS 12.25.180(b), 

police officers have the authority to arrest or issue a citation to any person who commits 

an offense in their presence.        Chase nevertheless argues that this authority to arrest or 

to cite must be exercised "reasonably", because the Constitution forbids unreasonable 


                According   to   Chase,   even   when   a   police   officer   has   probable   cause   to 

believe that an individual has violated the law, the search-and-seizure provisions of the 

federal   and   state   constitutions   require   courts   to   determine,   on   a   case-by-case   basis, 

whether the police seizure of that individual was "reasonable" - by weighing (1) the 

government's interest in enforcing that particular law against (2) the individual's interest 

in liberty and privacy.  With regard to his particular case, Chase contends that the police 

officer's decision to stop him was unreasonable because the government had only a 

    1   AS 28.15.291(a) and AS 28.05.095(a), respectively. 

                                                  - 2 -                                               2283 

----------------------- Page 3-----------------------

negligible interest in enforcing the seatbelt law, while Chase had a significant personal 

interest in not being detained by the police. 

                 Finally, Chase argues that even if the seatbelt statute is constitutional as a 

general   matter,   and   even   if   the   traffic   stop   of   Chase's   vehicle   was   reasonable   for 

purposes of the search-and-seizure clause, the police officer's act of stopping Chase was 

a "pretext" stop, and thus all evidence obtained during that stop must be suppressed. 

                 For the reasons explained here, we conclude that none of Chase's claims 

has merit, and we therefore affirm his convictions. 

         Whether   Alaska's   seatbelt   law   infringes   the   rights   of   personal   liberty, 
        autonomy, and privacy guaranteed by the Alaska Constitution 

                 We first address Chase's argument that the seatbelt law is unconstitutional 

as a general matter.      Chase contends that whatever governmental interest there may be 

in   having   people   wear   seatbelts   is   outweighed   by   the   rights   of   personal   liberty   and 

autonomy guaranteed by Article I, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution. 

                 Article I, Section 1 of our state constitution declares that "all persons have 

a natural right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the enjoyment of the rewards 

of their own industry".       In Breese v. Smith, 501 P.2d 159, 168-172 (Alaska 1972), the 

Alaska   Supreme   Court   interpreted   this   provision   as   guaranteeing   a   certain   level   of 

personal autonomy, and as creating a sphere of personal activities and choices that are 

presumptively immune from government interference or regulation. 

                 Chase argues that Article I, Section 1 protects his right to travel without 

police    interference,     his  right   to  personal    privacy,    and   his  right   to  be   free  from 

unreasonable seizure. 

                                                   - 3 -                                               2283

----------------------- Page 4-----------------------

                 We   are   not   convinced   that   Article   I,   Section   1,   standing   alone,   should 

necessarily be interpreted to protect all three of the interests that Chase has identified 

(right to travel, right to privacy, and right to be free of unreasonable seizure) - since 

two of these interests (privacy, and the right to be free from unreasonable seizure) are 

explicitly covered by other provisions of our state constitution.                 Article I, Section 22 

guarantees a right of privacy, while Article I, Section 14 prohibits unreasonable searches 

and   seizures.      But   in  any   event,   we   acknowledge   that   Chase   has   identified   three 

constitutionally protected interests. 

                 Chase contends that a person's decision whether to wear a seatbelt is a 

personal and private choice akin to a person's choice of hairstyle - a choice that the 

Alaska Supreme Court declared to be protected under Article I, Section 1 in Breese v. 

Smith.    Chase further argues that the government has no significant interest in making 

people wear seatbelts when they drive (or ride in) motor vehicles.   Chase contends that 

the seatbelt law has not made any discernible improvement in public safety, and he 

further contends that the Alaska Legislature's main motivation for enacting this law was 

to make sure that Alaska remained eligible for federal highway funds. 

                 However,   the   record   shows   that   when   the   legislature   first   enacted   the 

seatbelt   law,   the   legislature   was   presented   with   ample   testimony   and   documentary 

evidence indicating that the law would increase seatbelt use, would prevent injuries, and 

would save lives and money. As a general rule, it is not an appellate court's role to strike 

down legislation simply because one might reasonably argue that the legislation was 

misguided, or simply because it appears that legislation may not have accomplished all 

of its intended goals.      As this Court explained in Dancer v. State : 

                 We     may     not   concern     ourselves     with    the   wisdom      of 
                 legislation.   Our role is much more modest.   We evaluate the 
                 legislation     to   determine      whether      it   contravenes      any 

                                                   - 4 -                                               2283

----------------------- Page 5-----------------------

                prohibitions   in   the   constitution.     If   it   does   not,   we   must 
                uphold the legislation. Policy arguments advocating changes 
                to    constitutional    legislation    must    be   addressed     to  the 
                legislature, not the courts. 

715 P.2d 1174, 1176 (Alaska App. 1986). 

                This leaves Chase's argument that, whatever legitimate government interest 

there   might   be   in   having   people   wear   seatbelts,   that   interest   is   outweighed   by   the 

individual's interest in personal autonomy and privacy.  But the Alaska Supreme Court 

rejected a similar "personal privacy" argument in Kingery v. Chapple, 504 P.2d 831, 

835-37 (Alaska 1972), a case in which the supreme court upheld the constitutionality of 

Department of Public Safety regulations that required motorcycles to have various types 

of safety equipment, and which required motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. 

                In rejecting this privacy claim, the supreme court distinguished its earlier 

decision in Breese v. Smith  (dealing with the government's attempted regulation of a 

student's hairstyle choice).  The supreme court declared that the challenged motorcycle 

regulations did not constitute an "invasion of privacy" because those regulations were 

supported by "compelling state interests in providing for [the] safety of the traveling 

public".   Kingery, 504 P.2d at 835 n. 6. 

                When the seatbelt law was under consideration by the legislature, several 

highway safety experts told the legislature that a seatbelt law which authorized police 

officers to stop motorists for not wearing seatbelts was an effective measure for reducing 

the number of deaths and serious injuries from highway accidents.                 Chase has failed to 

offer a persuasive rebuttal to that testimony. 

                For these reasons, we reject Chase's argument that Alaska's seatbelt law 

unlawfully infringes the rights of personal liberty, autonomy, and privacy guaranteed by 

the Alaska Constitution. 

                                                  - 5 -                                             2283

----------------------- Page 6-----------------------

         Chase's   contention   that,   even   if   the   seatbelt   law   is   constitutional   as   a 
        general matter, trial courts are still obliged to determine, on a case-by­ 
         case   basis,   whether   a   particular   traffic   stop   for   an   observed   seatbelt 
         violation qualifies as "reasonable" for purposes of the search and seizure 
         clauses of the federal and state constitutions 

                 We     next   turn   to  Chase's     argument      that,  even    if  the  seatbelt   law   is 

constitutional as a general matter, the search and seizure clauses of the federal and state 

constitutions   still   require   courts   to   determine,   on   a   case-by-case   basis,   whether   the 

enforcement of this law by means of a traffic stop (or a full-blown arrest) constitutes an 

"unreasonable" seizure under the particular circumstances of an individual defendant's 


                 Chase acknowledges that in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista , 532 U.S. 318, 

121 S.Ct. 1536, 149 L.Ed.2d 549 (2001), the United States Supreme Court held that the 

Fourth Amendment allows a police officer to arrest a person, even for a minor offense 

punishable only by a fine, whenever the officer has probable cause to believe that the 

offense has been committed.           In Atwater, the Supreme Court "confirm[ed] ... [that] the 

standard   of   probable   cause   applies   to   all   arrests,   without   the   need   to   'balance'   the 

interests and circumstances involved in particular situations."  Id., 532 U.S. at 354, 121 

S.Ct. at 1557. 

                 Chase asserts that his case is different because he was not arrested for the 

seatbelt    violation;    rather,   he  was    subjected     only   to  a  traffic  stop   for  the   seatbelt 

infraction. (The fact that Chase's driver's license had been canceled was discovered only 

during this traffic stop.) 

                 In other words, Chase argues that even though the Fourth Amendment 

allows police officers to arrest drivers for violating the seatbelt law, it does not allow 

officers to engage in the lesser intrusion of conducting a traffic stop to issue the driver 

                                                    - 6 -                                                2283

----------------------- Page 7-----------------------

a citation for violating the seatbelt law.        We reject this nonsensical construction of the 

Fourth Amendment. 

                 Chase also argues that the Atwater decision is distinguishable on its facts, 

because   the   Texas   seatbelt   law   at   issue   in  Atwater   contained   an   express   provision 

authorizing police officers to arrest any person found violating the seatbelt law.  Chase 

notes that Alaska's seatbelt law does not contain such a provision, and he suggests that, 

for this reason, Atwater does not support the traffic stop in his case. 

                 But Alaska law contains a general provision - AS 12.25.030(a) - that 

authorizes law enforcement officers to arrest a person without a warrant "for [any] crime 

committed or attempted in the presence of the [officer]".   It is true that this authority to 

conduct a warrantless arrest is limited by AS 12.25.180(b), which declares that when the 

person's crime is an "infraction" or a "violation" - i.e., an offense not punishable by 

imprisonment - the officer must issue a citation to the offender, in lieu of making an 

arrest, unless the person fails to provide satisfactory evidence of their identity or unless 

the person refuses to accept the citation and promise to appear in court.   But even so, it 

is   clear   that   whenever   a   police   officer   observes   a   person   breaking   the   law   in   their 

presence, Alaska law authorizes the officer to detain the person - either the temporary 

detention necessary to issue a citation, or the more substantial detention of a full-blown 


                 Chase argues in the alternative that, even if his traffic stop was lawful under 

the Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution, we should apply a stricter test under 

the search and seizure provision of the Alaska Constitution - Article I, Section 14. 

Chase contends that this provision of our state constitution requires courts to engage in 

a case-by-case analysis of the reasonableness of any police stop under the particular 

circumstances presented in an individual defendant's case. 

                                                   - 7 -                                              2283

----------------------- Page 8-----------------------

                In making this argument, Chase relies primarily on the type of analysis 

conducted by the Alaska Supreme Court in State v. Miller, 207 P.2d 541 (Alaska 2009). 

In Miller, the supreme court evaluated the legality of a police stop by applying the rule 

first announced in  Coleman v. State, 553 P.2d 40 (Alaska 1976) - the rule that the 

police   are   authorized   to   conduct   brief   investigative   detentions,   based   on   less   than 

probable cause, only when the police have reasonable suspicion that "imminent public 

danger exists" or that the person being detained had recently "[caused] serious harm" to 

persons or property.      Coleman, 553 P.2d at 46. 

                But the Coleman line of cases applies only to situations where the police 

have no probable cause to make an arrest - cases where there is some lesser degree of 

suspicion, and the question is whether the police were justified in temporarily detaining 

a suspect or witness to further investigate the matter.            The Coleman analysis does not 

apply when the police already have probable cause to make an arrest.                     See Joseph v. 

State, 145 P.3d 595, 600 (Alaska App. 2006) ("If [the police] had lawful justification for 

arresting Joseph when [they] began to chase him, this would allow the State to escape 

the Coleman strictures on investigative stops."). 

                Thus, Chase is wrong when he asserts that the supreme court's decisions 

in Miller or Coleman apply to his case.  In Chase's case, the police had probable cause: 

it is undisputed that the officer observed Chase driving without wearing a seatbelt. 

                Chase's   fall-back   position,   articulated   clearly   for   the   first   time   at   oral 

argument,   is   that   even   though   the  Coleman  analysis   was   intended   to   apply   only   to 

situations where the police lack probable cause to make an arrest, we should nevertheless 

interpret the search and seizure clause of the Alaska Constitution to require courts to 

engage in a Coleman-style analysis in all cases - including cases where the police have 

probable cause to make an arrest. 

                                                  - 8 -                                             2283

----------------------- Page 9-----------------------

                In essence, Chase asks us to interpret Article I, Section 14 of our state 

constitution as requiring courts to scrutinize every arrest or traffic stop - scrutinize them 

by weighing the government's interest in enforcing that particular statute or regulation 

against the defendant's interest in privacy and liberty, and then determining, under the 

particular circumstances of each individual defendant's case, whether the arrest or traffic 

stop was "reasonable".  Chase argues that, for these purposes, an arrest or a traffic stop 

is "reasonable" only when, under the circumstances of an individual defendant's case, 

the    public   interest   in  enforcing     that  particular    statute   or  regulation    sufficiently 

outweighed the defendant's interest in being left alone. 

                Chase has failed to provide any legal authority to support this proposition 

- the proposition that the search and seizure clause of the Alaska Constitution was 

intended to give courts the equitable power to declare an arrest or a traffic stop invalid, 

even though it was supported by probable cause, whenever a judge believes that the 

government   lacked        a  sufficient   interest   in  enforcing   that   particular  law   under    the 

particular facts of the defendant's case. 

                Moreover,   Chase's   argument   misapprehends   the   interplay   between   the 

search and seizure provision of the Alaska Constitution and the legislature's authority 

to define crimes.      It is the legislature's prerogative to prohibit conduct by enacting a 

criminal statute - such as the seatbelt law - when the legislature believes that this will 

further   the   public   safety   or   welfare.   The   legislature's   authority   to   create   criminal 

offenses is circumscribed by various provisions of the constitution.                  But if a criminal 

statute is a valid exercise of legislative power, then the normal rule under Alaska law is 

that a police officer who observes a person violating the statute is authorized to stop the 

offender and either make an arrest or issue a citation. 

                Chase would have the courts invalidate arrests and traffic stops on policy 

grounds, based on a judge's (or a group of judges') opinion as to whether it was socially 

                                                  - 9 -                                              2283

----------------------- Page 10-----------------------

worthwhile to enforce that particular law against that particular defendant. We reject this 

proposed interpretation of Article I, Section 14. 

        Whether Chase was subjected to a "pretext stop" 

                In his final attack on his convictions, Chase argues that the police officer's 

stop of Chase's vehicle amounted to a "pretext" stop.  In other words, Chase argues that 

the officer's announced   motivation for stopping him - the fact that Chase was not 

wearing a seatbelt - was merely a subterfuge for detaining Chase in order to investigate 

other matters. 

                This Court has discussed the doctrine of "pretext" stops in a series of cases, 

most recently in Morgan v. State, 162 P.3d 636, 638-39 (Alaska App. 2007), Grohs v. 

State, 118 P.3d 1080, 1081-82 (Alaska App. 2005), and Nease v. State, 105 P.3d 1145, 

1148-1150 (Alaska App. 2005). 

                The United States Supreme Court rejected this doctrine in Whren v. United 

States, 517 U.S. 806, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89 (1996), and we have not yet 

decided whether to adopt the doctrine.  However, we have clarified that the doctrine does 

not apply to all instances where a police officer has an ulterior motive for making a 

traffic stop.  Rather, a traffic stop is a "pretext" only if the defendant proves that, because 

of this ulterior motive, the officer departed from reasonable police practices by making 

the stop.  Morgan, 162 P.3d at 638; Nease, 105 P.3d at 1148 (citing Wayne R. LaFave, 

Search and Seizure:   A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment (3rd ed.1996), § 1.4, Vol. 1, 

pp. 117-18). 

                Although Chase uses the phrase "pretext stop" to describe his claim on 

appeal,   he   is   not   actually   talking   about   the   "pretext"   stop   doctrine   that   this   Court 

discussed in Morgan, Grohs, and Nease. 

                                                 -  10 -                                           2283

----------------------- Page 11-----------------------

                 The officer who stopped Chase testified that he was on patrol, working 

overtime as part of a nationwide "click-it-or-ticket" law enforcement campaign - in 

other words, he was looking specifically for drivers who were not wearing their seatbelts. 

Thus,   the   officer   had   no   ulterior   motive   when   he   stopped   Chase   for   not   wearing   a 

seatbelt.   The officer's express motive was to look for drivers who were violating the 

seatbelt law, and to cite these drivers for this offense. 

                 Chase does not dispute the officer's testimony concerning his patrol duties 

and his purpose for stopping Chase.  Rather, Chase argues that the legislature's purpose 

for enacting the seatbelt law in the first place was to give police officers a "pretext" for 

stopping citizens for no good reason, with the hope that the officers might then discover 

evidence of more substantial crimes. 

                 This is not a normal "pretext stop" argument.              Chase does not claim that 

there was something wrong in his particular case; Chase does not argue that the officer 

who stopped him was using the seatbelt violation as a subterfuge to mask the officer's 

true purpose of investigating Chase for some other crime.                  Instead, Chase argues that 

there is an underlying flaw in the seatbelt law itself. 

                 The   flaw,   according   to   Chase,   is   that   the   seatbelt   law  lacks   any   true 

governmental purpose.         Chase argues that the seatbelt law does not promote the public 

health or safety in any substantial way, and that the legislature's only real purpose in 

enacting this law was to give law enforcement officers the authority to spuriously stop 

citizens and investigate them for other crimes. 

                 This is essentially a rewording of the claim that we addressed in the first 

section   of   this   opinion   -   Chase's   argument   that   the   public   interest   supporting   the 

seatbelt law is so negligible that the law can not be justified as a legitimate legislative act, 

given the rights of autonomy and privacy guaranteed under the Alaska Constitution. 

                                                  -  11 -                                              2283

----------------------- Page 12-----------------------

              In that first section of our opinion, we concluded that the seatbelt law was 

supported by a sufficient public interest to justify   its enactment and its concomitant 

limitation of personal autonomy and privacy.   Given that conclusion, we reject Chase's 

argument that the legislature's real purpose in enacting the seatbelt law was to provide 

the police with a pretext to stop motorists. 


              The judgement of the district court is AFFIRMED. 

                                            -  12 -                                      2283
Case Law
Statutes, Regs & Rules

IT Advice, Support, Data Recovery & Computer Forensics.
(907) 338-8188

Please help us support these and other worthy organizations:
Law Project for Psychiatraic Rights