Officers Cannot Extend Traffic Stop Without Reasonable Suspicion

This week we look at a case out of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  For officers operating in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, and Oregon the appellate court has refined the rules surrounding the questioning of passengers during a motor vehicle stop. 

As we have often said, traffic stops are the bread and butter of good police work and are often the starting point to making great cases.  Good police officers are often able to turn a simple traffic stop into a big case through their powers of observation and years of building strong intuition.  So, with that in mind, we will look at what the 9th Circuit had to say about the officer’s actions in this case – US v Landero[i].

FACTS

In the early morning hours on February 9, 2016, Officer Clinton Baker of the Pascua Yaqui Police Department pulled over a vehicle that was being driven 11 miles over the speed limit.  Baker had dual authority and, as such, was able to enforce both tribal codes and Arizona state laws.  The driver provided the officer with his license and registration, and the officer observed two female passengers in the rear seat and the defendant – Alfredo Landeros in the front passenger seat. 

Smelling alcohol in the car and believing that the female passengers might be underage, Baker asked both for identification.  In addition to the alcohol issue, tribal law imposed a 10:00 PM curfew on tribal members under 18 years of age.  The two women complied and provided ID that showed they were over 18 years of age.

The officer testified that he did not believe Landeros was under 18 years of age; however, he proceeded to the passenger side of the vehicle and “commanded” Landeros to provide identification.  Landeros refused and Baker again directed Landeros to provide ID.  When Landeros refused a second time, Officer Baker called for backup.  When the second officer, Officer Romero, arrived both officers ordered Landeros to exit the vehicle. 

As Landeros exited the vehicle the officers observed two open beer bottles on the floorboards by the front passenger seat.  Landeros was advised he was under arrest for open alcohol containers in a vehicle and for failing to provide his name and comply with officers pursuant to an Arizona statute.  He was handcuffed and a search pursuant to the arrest uncovered a pocketknife, six bullets, and a smoking pipe.

Two and a half months later, Landeros was indicted in Federal District Court for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon.  Landeros’ motion to suppress the evidence was denied and he was subsequently sentenced to just over a year in prison and year years’ probation.  This appeal followed.

9th Circuit Findings

The two core issues in this case are – (1) under what circumstances may an officer prolong a motor vehicle stop and (2) when can an officer legitimately require a person to identify themselves.

In the past, we reviewed the US Supreme Court ruling – Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1615 (2015).  In the Rodriguez case, the US Supreme Court overruled an 8th Circuit decision that prolonging a traffic stop by seven or eight minutes to allow a dog sniff was a “de minimis intrusion” on Rodriguez’s 4th Amendment protections.  The Court held that the question is not whether the dog sniff occurred before or after a ticket was issued but, rather, did the dog sniff add time to the actual stop.  Absent independent facts and circumstances that support reasonable suspicion of a crime, any additional time would be unlawful.

That case has spawned what the courts euphemistically refer to as the “Rodriguez moment” – that point in the traffic stop where the officer has completed the enforcement activity required to deal with the traffic issue.  Any continuation of the stop for other investigative purposes, absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause, no matter how slight, is prohibited.

Here, Officer Baker had completed the traffic enforcement action with the operator and had determined that the female passengers were not violating any state or tribal regulation.  Any additional questioning of Landeros can only survive constitutional scrutiny if it was (1) part of the stop’s “mission” or (2) supported by independent reasonable suspicion”.  In this case, the officer testified that Landeros was clearly over 18 and he only asked for ID “because it was standard practice”.  Under these circumstances, the court concluded the officers’ actions impermissibly extended the stop without the requisite Reasonable Suspicion or Probable Cause.

The US attorney argued that Arizona law required persons to provide ID when requested by officers.  However, this statute only applies when the officers have reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.  In this case, Landeros was not suspected of criminal conduct.  Rather, the request was made pursuant to “standard practice”. 

The 9th Circuit reversed the trial court’s denial of the motion to suppress finding that the stop had been impermissibly extended and the officers had no authority to demand Landeros provide identification.

WRAP UP

Now you may be thinking – didn’t the US Supreme Court allow officers to require a passenger to exit the vehicle during a traffic stop?  Certainly, in Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997) SCOTUS ruled that an officer may direct passengers to exit the vehicle during a lawful traffic stop.  Unfortunately, in this case, the 9th Circuit ruled that the lawful stop had concluded prior to the officers ordering Landeros out of the car.

It is important that officers understand when that “Rodriguez moment” has passed. That is to say, that point where the original reason for the stop has been dealt with.  Any prolonging of the stop after that point must be based on independent reasonable suspicion.  As SCOTUS said in Rodriguez, “there is no bonus time to pursue unrelated criminal investigations by completing the traffic-related activities expeditiously”.


[i] U.S. v. Landeros, #17-10217, 2019 U.S. App. Lexis 1021, 2019 WL 172432 (9th Cir.).