Twenty minutes may seem like a long time for a traffic stop, but it’s not prolonged — at least in certain circumstances — according to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A divided panel held on March 30 that while the Supreme Court has clarified that extending a stop by even a de minimis length of time is a Fourth Amendment violation, police in Richmond, Virginia, did not run afoul of that holding when, during a routine traffic stop, they entered a driver’s and passenger’s name into three databases, made “small talk” with the detained men, and called a K-9 unit to the scene.
Defendant Donald Hill argued that the officers’ actions exceeded the lawful scope of the stop and that it extended beyond the time needed to execute relevant tasks, violating his rights described in 2015’s Rodriguez v. United States.
According to court records, officers Ryan Taylor and Jason McClendon stopped a vehicle that they alleged was traveling slightly over the speed limit and had crossed a double yellow line.
Officer Taylor recognized Hill, who was a passenger in the car, and the driver, Jeremy Taylor. Jeremy Taylor, Officer Taylor said, was known for “hanging with” individuals “connected with” robberies. Office Taylor was familiar with Hill from a prior traffic stop and knew that Hill was a victim in a prior stabbing.
In his police cruiser, Officer Taylor entered the detained men’s names into a DMV database and the National Crime Information Center. After about three minutes, an NCIC alert notified Taylor that both men were associated with drug trafficking and were “likely armed.” Jeremy Taylor’s driver’s license was also suspended.
Officer Taylor began writing Jeremy Taylor two tickets for reckless driving and driving without a license, and called in for a K-9 unit. He took a break from writing tickets to enter the men into a third, local, database.
Officer Taylor admitted that using the third database can be time consuming and that he spent between three and five minutes reviewing information provided by the search before resuming his ticket writing.
Both officers said that it takes four or five minutes to write a single ticket.
While Officer Taylor wrote tickets and searched databases, McClendon stood by Hill’s door making “small talk” with Hill and Jeremy Taylor. After several inquiries from McClendon regarding whether there were any drugs or weapons in the car, Hill admitted to having a firearm on him.
McClendon shouted “gun!” and Officer Taylor put his pen down and assisted in securing Hill and the weapon. About the same time, the K-9 unit arrived.
According to the district court, about 20 minutes had passed from the time the officers initiated the stop to the moment that McClendon shouted “gun.”
Hill was charged with, and later pleaded guilty to, being a felon in possession of a firearm. The district court denied his motion to suppress the firearm and his comments to McClendon, and found that the stop was not extended.
It’s taking too long
On appeal, Hill argued that the officers unlawfully extended the duration and scope of the stop. McClendon, Hill asserted, should have assisted Officer Taylor with ticket writing and database searching rather than chatting with him and Taylor, the driver. Hill also challenged Officer Taylor’s call to request K-9 and search the third database.
Hill’s appellate attorney, Caroline Swift Platt of the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia, summed up Hill’s argument by saying that while Officer Taylor diligently, albeit slowly, pursued the purposes of the traffic stop, McClendon questioned the vehicle’s occupants about guns and drugs, “engaging in an unrelated and unsupported-by-reasonable-suspicion investigation.”
“That unlawfully extended the stop,” Platt wrote in an email.
As such, Hill contended, his Fourth Amendment rights as described in Rodriguez were violated.
The courts disagreed.
In Rodriguez, the court held that the authority for a seizure “ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.”
Another 2015 case, United States v. Williams, clarified that extending a stop by even “a de minimis length of time” violates the Fourth Amendment.
But quoting a separate case, Circuit Judge Barbara Keenan, writing for the court, noted that the acceptable length of a routine stop cannot be stated with “mathematical precision.” Rather, it is to be considered what is reasonable under the totality of circumstances presented to police at the time.
“Thus, an officer need not employ ‘the least intrusive means conceivable’ in executing a stop, but he still must be reasonably diligent and must use ‘the least intrusive means reasonably available,” Keenan wrote, using language from 2011’s United States v. Digiovanni.
The majority found that officers, diligently pursuing the purpose of a traffic stop, may engage in other investigative techniques unrelated to the traffic infraction or their own safety, as long as in the absence of consent by the driver or reasonable suspicion by the officer, it does not prolong the roadside detention. This includes questioning about unrelated topics and a dog sniff.
Agree to disagree
The district court found that the stop lasted 20 minutes. The 4th Circuit panel found that the officers directly accounted for their activity during 18 minutes of the stop and that the remaining two minutes “does not support an inference that the stop was extended unlawfully.”
Senior Circuit Judge Andre Davis disagreed with his colleagues, writing in his dissent that Hill was a passenger who had not violated a law and had no duty to identify himself to officers, as he declined to do here.
Davis opined that this was no mere traffic stop, but a narcotics and firearms investigation devoid of reasonable suspicion or probable cause. He said that every minute Officer Taylor spent determining Hill’s identity prolonged the stop.
Davis made clear that no one sympathizes with violent drug dealers, and that he applauds law enforcement’s efforts to protect society from such violence.
“But the ill-fated ‘War on Drugs’ has sometimes overlooked an unmentioned casualty,” Davis wrote. “The Fourth Amendment.”
The 15-page decision is U.S. v. Hill (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-081-17). An opinion digest is available online at sclawyersweekly.com
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher