Law enforcement agencies often use traffic stops or other small municipal code violations as a pretext to investigate a suspect for more serious criminal activity. Many arrests and convictions for serious crimes occur only after a law enforcement officer has stopped or detained a suspect for a less serious offense, and decided to expand the scope of their investigation to look for evidence of further criminal activity. These law enforcement tactics are permissible in some circumstances, however, if a police officer expands the scope of a minor traffic stop without legal justification, it may be possible for a defendant to suppress any evidence obtained through the officer’s unlawful tactics. The Arizona Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion in an appeal filed by a man who was convicted of several serious offenses after he was stopped for violating traffic laws.
The defendant in the recently decided appeal is a man who was convicted of several felony offenses relating to drugs and weapons that he allegedly had in his vehicle and were discovered after a traffic stop. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the defendant had been under investigation for several months for alleged drug activity, however, he was initially stopped by a uniformed officer after he was witnessed violating several minor traffic laws. After the defendant was stopped, several rounds of questioning ensued as to his reason for being in the area. The officer also administered field sobriety tests waiting for a K-9 unit to arrive. After some delay, the police dog arrived and alerted the officer to narcotics in the vehicle. A subsequent search of the vehicle discovered significant amounts of drugs and weapons. The defendant was arrested, charged, and ultimately convicted.
After his conviction, the defendant appealed to the Arizona Court of Appeals, challenging the trial judge’s decision to allow the evidence discovered at the traffic stop to be used at trial. The defendant argued that the officer exceeded the scope of the traffic stop and unreasonably delayed the stop in order to allow time for the K-9 unit to arrive and search for the drugs. The appellate court did not completely agree with the trial judge’s ruling that the scope of the traffic stop was not expanded; however, the court upheld the ruling and conviction because the defendant was the subject of an ongoing narcotics investigation, and the law enforcement agents involved all had reasonable suspicion to perform a search based on the evidence gathered in the months-long investigation, as well as what they had witnessed the day of the arrest. As a result of the appellate ruling, the defendant’s conviction will stand, and he will be required to serve out his prison sentence.