Thursday, May 28, 2015

Beyond a Traffic Stop

The Supreme Court recently made clear that an officer cannot extend a traffic stop without additional reasonable suspicion (or consent, as always). The case, Rodriguez v. United States, is a nice win for the simple fact that any Fourth Amendment win is a nice win.
But alas, it look less than one month for the Tenth Circuit to affirm the denial of a Fourth Amendment claim involving an extended traffic stop. The case is United States v. Pettit. The holding: officers had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to justify the continued detention of the vehicle and its driver.
Imagine this: a friend you met over 3 years ago asks you to fly out to California, retrieve her vehicle, then drive it back to Kansas. She explains that she had to fly out from California to help her father with a health condition. You have no idea why she drove to California in the first place. In your possession is a Missouri "nondriver" license (your Missouri driver's license is suspended) and a suspended California driver's license (so, you have no valid driver's license). You also have multiple arrests for felonies and other drug offenses and $2000 in a suitcase in the trunk. You get pulled over in Utah for crossing the fog line (a "snow blast" could have caused it). You are admittedly nervous when the officer approaches (you actually tell him that you are nervous, and you do so twice within 25 seconds, and, according to the officer, your entire arm is shaking). Fifteen minutes after the officer completes a traffic citation, a drug dog hits on the car, and officers find 2.5 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the spare tire in the trunk.
Bummer, huh.
The Tenth, at one point referring to itself in the third person, holds that the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain you while waiting for the dog to arrive to sniff your vehicle. It focuses on three factors: (1) nervousness (in this case excessive); (2) unusual travel plans; and (3) multiple suspended driver's licenses. It concludes that, taken together, these things created reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop.
The Tenth's cases on nervousness are actually decent. This case is not. But do not forget that the defendant in this case admitted that he was nervous because of the officer's presence. Not smart, Mr. Pettit.
It is difficult to argue that the travel plans were not unusual. Certainly not implausible, but the typical motorist is on the road for much different reasons than Mr. Pettit gave the officers.
And, let's be honest, if you are going to transport 2.5 kilograms of cocaine, you should probably have a valid driver's license, not two suspended ones.
As a practical matter, this case is a fact-bound one. It is one that we should be able to distinguish fairly easily (unless we inherit a client with a similarly bland imagination). The bottom line: reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop exists where the driver is driving somebody else's car, is admittedly nervous because of the police, has no valid driver's license, and has unusual travel plans.
No surprises there.   

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