U.S. Supreme Court Tips Scale to 4th Amendment Rights at Police Stops

Case analysis; Impacts of Ruling on Arizona; Your 4th Amendment Rights at a Stop: Arizona Criminal Defense

Police cannot prolong stop’s duration beyond its initial purpose, without reasonable suspicion.

The United States Supreme Court recently decided an important case  that tilted in favor of 4th Amendment protections against unlawful detention, search and seizures.

Police dog

The case arose when a K-9 police officer pulled over the defendant for moving traffic violation.  The driver was in driving on a highway shoulder, in violation of state law.  The officer took the driver’s and passenger’s driver’s licenses, registration and proof of insurance.

The officer returned to his patrol car and began a records check of the driver.  The officer then returned to the suspect’s vehicle, and began questioning both the driver and passenger about where they were coming from and their destination.

After conversing with the driver and passenger the officer returned to his patrol car, and finished the records check.    Following the completion of the records check, the officer called for backup.

While waiting for back-up, the officer began writing a warning ticket to issue to the driver for the traffic violation.  For the third time, the officer returned to the suspect’s vehicle where he issued the warning ticket to the driver.

The officer finished explaining the warning ticket, and returned the documents that he had previously obtained from the driver.

At that point, all the business surrounding the purpose of the initial traffic stop were completed.

But the officer did not consider the suspect “free to leave.”  Instead, he asked the driver for permission to walk the police K-9 around the driver’s vehicle.  The driver refused.

Then the officer instructed the driver to turn off the ignition; get out of his vehicle; stand and wait in front of the officer’s patrol car for the second officer to arrive.  The driver complied.  The officer continued to detain him for 7-8 minutes until the second officer arrived on scene.

As soon as the second officer’s arrived, the first officer retrieved his dog and led the K-9 around the vehicle. On the second pass, the dog alerted the officers there were drugs present in the car.  The officers found a large bag of Methamphetamine (Meth).

The defendant was indicted for federal drug crimes including possession of Meth with intent to distribute, and sentenced to 5 years prison.

Overview of the U.S. District Court (initial) Decision 

The defendant asked the court to suppress the evidence from the search, on the grounds that the first officer had prolonged the traffic stop (7 -8 minutes), after the warning citation was issued, without reasonable suspicion, in order to allow the K-9 to pass around the vehicle for a drug check.

The magistrate judge the Magistrate in the United States District Court for Nebraska, found there was no reasonable suspicion to support the detention of the suspect beyond the point that the warning was written, issued, and explained.  The Judge found no probable cause to search the vehicle, independent of the drug K-9’s alert.

However, the Magistrate in the District Court, noted an Eight Circuit Court precedent that applied. It held that extending at stop by 7-8 minutes would be a minimal intrusion on the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights:  “dog sniffs that occur within a short time following the completion of a traffic stop are not constitutionally prohibited if they constitute only diminish intrusions.”  (United States v. Alexander).  Therefore the Judge concluded that the detention time itself for second officer to arrive, and the K-9 check, was therefore,permissible, and not in violation of the suspects 4th Amendment rights.  The motion was denied to suppress the illegal drug evidence.

Overview of Appeals Court Ruling

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling with regard to the length of the delay, 7-8 minutes being permissible based on the precedent case. The Appeals court concluded that such delay is considered a “de minimis” (minimal intrusion), of the suspects personal liberties, offset by the Government’s interest in stopping the flow of illegal drugs, which resembled previous cases that where delays were found to be permissible by the court.

However, though the Appeals Court ruled on the length of time issue, it declined to advance to the question or rule on whether or not the officer met the standard of having “reasonable suspicion”  for detention of the suspect, beyond the time the civil traffic warning was issued., leaving a key issue unaddressed.

The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on the issue of whether or not law enforcement may routinely detain a suspect, beyond resolution of the traffic matter, for drug K-9 check, without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

US Supreme Court Decision Overview and Decision

The US Supreme Court in its review cited their previous rulings, among them, Johnson 555 U.S. at 327-328 and Caballes, 542 U.S. at 406, 408. 

In both, they ruled that the Fourth Amendment allowed for certain unrelated investigations as long as they did not prolong the suspects detention time.

The high court ruled in both of these cases that a stop can become unlawful if it is delayed beyond the time required to complete the initial mission of the stop.  In Caballes, they cautioned that a police stop can be become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to the complete the mission if the stop, in this case issuing the traffic warning.   The court held that it did not matter whether a drug K-9 check was conducted prior to, or following the issuance of a citation.  The question was whether or not that factor added time to the stop.

The Court held that an officer may be able to conduct certain unrelated checks during a lawful routine stop, as long as it justifiably does not prolong the stop beyond the ordinary length of time it would take to complete the mission of that stop.

They held that ordinary inquiries should be those that are recognized as incidental to a routine stops for traffic violations.  They noted that typical inquiries would include request for driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance.

However, in those routine situations it would not include extending a routine civil traffic stop for a drug K-9 investigation.  A drug K-9 check is more akin to the the type of detection needed to rule out criminal activity.

The US Supreme Court held that it would be unlawful if it resulted in the overall stop being “prolonged beyond” the time reasonably required to complete the mission of the stop, in absence of reasonable suspicion; and that detention drawn out after the resolution of the traffic matter for the K-9 drug check was in in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The High Court noted that the US District Court’s had ruled that  the requesting of a K-9 drug investigation was not independently supported by reasonable suspicions   But that the the Appeals Court left that key matter unaddressed.

So the US Supreme Court remanded, and returned the case to the Appeals court for further reconsideration of whether or not the police had reasonable suspicion to justify detaining the suspect beyond completing the traffic stop, for investigation of criminal activity.

Impact of the US Supreme Court Decision on Arizona Police Stops 

This is a positive ruling in favor of 4th Amendment protections in Arizona, and other states against unlawful search and seizures.

The ruling suggests that if a stop is even 7-8 minutes longer than it needs to be, this can justify suppression of evidence obtained during the extended detainment or dog sniff.  To the extent that the Supreme Court’s decision conflicts with rulings related to the Fourth Amendment in Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling will be controlling.

The precedent rule going forward if raised, will be that a traffic stop in Arizona may last no longer than necessary to carry out the goals of the initial traffic stop or to handle the issue for which the police stopped the driver, in absence of the existence of reasonable suspicion.

In earlier blog posts,  we discussed an Arizona appellate court ruling that a police officer who saw someone swerving down the road at different speeds and found that the suspect’s answers were inconsistent had enough reasonable suspicion to detain the suspect for 40 minutes while waiting for a K-9 unit to arrive.  The appellate court ruled that whether an officer had a particularized basis for suspecting criminal activity required the court to look at the “totality of circumstances.”  The Supreme Court’s ruling does not expressly reject this rule.

But it does require police officers to rely on more than a “hunch” or experiences to justify extending a stop to conduct a drug unit K-9 check.

In this case, the issue of whether there was an independent basis for the sniff in the Supreme Court case was left open to be reviewed by a lower appellate court. Therefore, this is what prosecutors may use to factually distinguish the Arizona case and the Supreme Court case.

In the Arizona case, the officer kept finding information during the stop that added to his suspicion that criminal activity was occurring.  For example, he performed a background check of the suspect during the stop, and he found he had an extensive criminal record.  Also, the suspect consented to the search of the vehicle.  The consensual search uncovered suspicious taped boxes, which caused the officer to call the K-9 unit.

In contrast, the officer in the US Supreme Court case had already completed the purpose of the stop, which was to issue a warning, when the suspect declined to give him permission to do the dog sniff.  At that point, there was nothing that happened (beyond the officer’s personal hunch) to cause the officer to call another officer and conduct a dog sniff for drugs.

An important takeaway is that if you are pulled over in a traffic stop, you should not give consent to searches.  An officer may find something during a consensual search that gives rise to further suspicion, and an independent basis for extending the stop or conducting a dog sniff.

Your Rights at a Police Stop  

The best way to protect your rights at a stop, is to know them.  Below are some fundamental rights that you are afforded under the Federal and State Constitution:

  • You and your passengers have the right to remain silent, a right which must be invoked;
  • You and your passengers have the right to refrain from any discussion or answering questions that may seem like “small talk”, or social conversation.  However, you are required to provide routine documents as requested by the officer such as driver’s license, proof of insurance, and vehicle registration, after being pulled over for a traffic violation, or other reason of suspicion;
  • You have the right to refrain from answering questions by the police as to where you were coming from, your destination, the purpose of your trip, what you ate or drank or ingested;
  • You have the right to politely and calmly ask the officer if you are “free to leave” when it is apparent that you are not being arrested or issued a citation;
  • You have the right to refuse roadside Field Sobriety Testing;
  • You have the right to request that police preserve a breath test, chemical or blood sample of your DUI test for your defense;
  • You have the right to an attorney for defense, and to have them present during questioning or interrogation after an arrest. Note this right must be invoked;
  • You have the right to be free of use of excessive or unnecessary force, brutality, or misconduct by police;
  • Though you have the right against false arrest; you do not have the right to flee, be disobedient; resist arrest; use force; touch the officer’s weapon or person; or physically attempt to avoid the arrest.  Doing so may cause the officer to feel threatened, and they believe to be necessary force to make the arrest or protect themselves.

Criminal Defense Attorney Phoenix-Metro and East Valley AZ 

If you are charged or arrested for any type of you should consult with an experienced attorney discuss your matter and options for defense as soon as reasonably possible.

There may be defenses to your case that you are not aware of, which may include constitutionality of the stop, other violations of rights, or challenges to weak, or exculpatory evidence that can be used to obtain a more favorable outcome in your case.

James Novak, DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney in Maricopa County, is a former prosecutor, highly skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact James Novak, of The Law Office of James E. Novak, PLLC at 480-413-1499 for a confidential, and free initial consultation, if you face criminal charges in Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, or other surrounding East Valley Cities.

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