Arizona Court of Appeals: Officer had Reasonable Suspicion to Detain based on Totality of Circumstances: Part I of II: Case Study

Suspect’s 40 minute detention, while awaiting drug K-9 unit was not unreasonable.

In a case decided earlier this month, an Arizona Appeals Court ruled that an officer had enough “reasonable suspicion” to detain a suspect 40 minutes while awaiting the drug K-9 unit.

The court considered the “Totality of Circumstances” or “the whole picture”, to conclude that the detention was not unreasonable.

Case Facts

The suspect was pulled over, after the police officer observed the driver swerving and traveling at varied rates of speed.

The officer approached the vehicle, and requested the driver’s license, and registration.  The driver complied as well as providing the rental car agreement.

The officer asked the driver where he was going, at which point the driver provided several answers. The officer reported that the answers were inconsistent, “confusing” and “perplexing”.   The officer reported that the responses raised the officer’s suspicions.

The officer then noticed that there were no personal belongings in the vehicle.  So he asked the driver if he was planning to stay in Phoenix AZ. The driver said no.  The fact that the suspect was not planning to stay in Phoenix, but had no personal belongings in the vehicle, elevated the officer’s suspicions of potential criminal activity in progress.

The officer decided to do a background check on the suspect. The criminal records check revealed that the suspect had an extensive history of illegal drug trafficking and manufacturing crimes in a different state.

The officer asked for the suspect’s consent to search the rental car, and the suspect consented to the search.

Upon search of the trunk, the officer discovered two cardboard shipping boxes of “very solid weight” that were unlabeled, and taped closed.  The officer asked the suspect to open the boxes, but the suspect refused.

At that point the officer requested the police department’s narcotics K-9 unit to be brought to the scene and check out the boxes. The K-unit arrived approximately 40 minutes later.

The police dog “bit one of the boxes” in the trunk, signaling to the officer that the K-9 detected drugs in the boxes. The police officer opened the boxes and found the Marijuana.

Court Summaries 

The Superior Court of Arizona initially granted the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence of Marijuana  discovered in the trunk of the rental car the defendant was driving. The Superior Court’s decision was made on the basis that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to detain the suspect while the police officer waited for a narcotics dog to in check boxes found in the trunk of the vehicle.

The State appealed the Superior Court’s decision to suppress the Marijuana evidence. The state argued that the lower court erred by ruling that the police officer did not have reasonable suspicion to detain the suspect in order to wait for the drug K-9 unit to arrive.

Case Analysis

The Arizona Appeals Court identified the need to evaluate the  “Totality of the Circumstances” or the big picture, in its decision as to whether or not the officer had a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting that the person was engaging in criminal activity” citing “O’Meara, 198 Ariz. at 295 ¶ 7, 9 P.3d @ 326.

The Appeals Court recognized that while a police officer must have more than a hunch or non-particularized suspicion, “reasonable suspicion” does require a minimal level of objective justification, .though considerably less than a preponderance of the evidence citing Teagle, 217 Ariz. at 24 ¶¶ 25–26, 170 P.3d  @ 273.

In this case, neither the reason for the stop, or the facts surrounding the case were in dispute. So the question for the Appeals court was “What exactly did those facts and circumstances mean?”.  

The court ruled that the detention was reasonable based on the Totality of the Circumstances in which they considered the following set of factors:      

  • Circumstances that led to the initial stop;
  • Defendant driving rental car, traveling, with no personal belonging inside the vehicle;
  • Inconsistent Statements by suspect about where he was going:
  • Extensive criminal history of illegal drug transport and manufacturing, out of state;
  • Unlabeled, taped boxes found in trunk of car with weight and density consistent with illegal drug packages;
  • The police officer’s high level of expertise, skills and experience in detecting illegal drug transportation activity.

Of those factors, the two that seemed to carry the most weight with the court were the defendant’s significant drug transportation crimes history; and the police officers extensive drug trafficking detection experience and skills.

The court cited a number of cases to support the opinion that a suspect’s criminal history is considered part of the totality of circumstances; in that, the criminal history may cast suspicious light on seemingly innocent behavior  (United States v. Simson).

The court concluded that criminal history  in conjunction with other factors contributed powerfully to the reasonable suspicion determination for the officer, (United States v. White). At the same time, however, the court emphasized that criminal history  cannot be used as the sole factor in deciding if reasonable suspicion exists. Criminal history is part of the equation that can impact the officer’s judgment about whether criminal activity may be in process or occurred.  It may serve to cast suspicious light on what might otherwise be considered seemingly innocent behavior.(United States v. Simpson; United States v. Chamberlin; State v. Lee; United States v. Cotterman).

With regard to the training and expertise of this particular officer, the court cited that these attributes would allow a highly skilled officer to distinguish innocent from suspicious actions. (Teagle, 217 Ariz. at 24 ¶ 26, 170 P.3d at 273).  In that, some inferences of drug trafficking activity might well have eluded in the eye of an untrained observer. (United States v. Arvizu).

Criminal Defense Attorney Phoenix AZ

Marijuana, or any illegal drug trafficking or sales in Marijuana are serious and carry some of the most severe penalties called for under Arizona law.   In fact, its quite possible that a drug trafficking conviction can send a person to prison for the rest of their life.

In this case study above focused on one issue of challenge in a criminal defense case. But a number of arguments may exist in which a criminal case and its evidence may be challenged.  Every case holds its own unique set of circumstances.  For this reason, an effective defense strategy should be tailored to the facts and circumstances of the case.   Challenges may include constitutional rights violations such as unlawful stop, search or seizure; weaknesses in evidence; affirmative defenses; violations of police procedure and protocol; and others. We will discuss these defenses in depth, in Part II  of this series. .

You should always consult a highly skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney if you face illegal drug trafficking, sales, or intent to sell charges.   A qualified and effective criminal defense attorney will protect your rights, and defend your charges through due process in the criminal justices system.  James Novak, Drug Defense Attorney is a former prosecutor with a vast amount of litigation experience in handling drug cases of all types. He will make sure you are treated fairly, protect your rights, and fight to get the most favorable outcome in your case.  The Law Office of James Novak, PLLC defends criminal and DUI charges in Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Chandler, Scottsdale, and Gilbert AZ. Experienced Attorney, James Novak provides a free consultation for active charges within his serving areas.

We hope you will stay with us to read part II of II as we examine continue our discussion.  Part II outlines Criminal Rights at a Stop; 10 Common Drug Defenses; Mitigating Sentencing; Drug Trafficking Laws; Penalties for conviction; Felony Drug  Defense Representation in Phoenix AZ.    

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