Question: If a peace officer develops reasonable suspicion of criminal activity during a routine traffic stop, could the length of the detention violate the Fourth Amendment?
Quick answer: Yes. If you are not diligently investigating either the traffic stop or your suspicion of criminal activity, a court might throw out the incriminating evidence found during a prolonged stop.
Facts: While on patrol about 1 a.m., an Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper watched a car drive left of center. She turned on her cruiser camera and pulled the car over. When she approached the driver, Torrece Troutman, she asked if he had anything illegal in the car. He said he did not, adding, “Not every black man carries drugs and guns.” The trooper noticed that Troutman’s eyes were bloodshot, so she asked him to step out of the car. She patted him down for weapons and noticed a big bulge in his pocket, which was $3,000 in cash. The trooper conducted a horizontal gaze nystagmus test for alcohol and another nystagmus test for marijuana. Neither showed that Troutman was impaired. The trooper placed Troutman in the back of her cruiser while she checked his driver’s license and requested a canine unit to the scene. Troutman’s license was valid, but he had a previous drug conviction.
While waiting for the drug dog to arrive, the trooper continuously asked Troutman if he had anything illegal in his car. Each time he responded that he did not, and he temporarily gave the trooper permission to search. But instead of conducting a search or writing Troutman a traffic ticket, she waited for the canine unit to arrive. Twenty minutes into the stop and eight minutes after Troutman revoked his consent to search, the canine unit arrived. The drug dog alerted to drugs in the car, and during a search, officers found cocaine. They also found pills in the back of the police car, on the seat behind Troutman. Troutman was arrested for cocaine and drug possession. He filed a motion to suppress the drugs based on the purpose and length of the stop.
Why the case is important: The court of appeals held that, although the trooper had probable cause to stop Troutman’s car for a traffic violation, the stop violated the Fourth Amendment when it became longer than what’s considered reasonably necessary to complete the stop. A reasonable amount of time for a traffic stop includes running a computer check on a driver’s license, registration, vehicle plates, and even walking a drug dog around the driver’s car. The reasonableness of the stop depends on the totality of the circumstances and whether the officer acted diligently in conducting the stop. An officer also may continue the stop beyond its original purpose if there is additional suspicion that criminal activity may be occurring. Here, the trooper did not issue Troutman a ticket or search his car, even though he had granted consent. From these facts, the court found the trooper was not diligent in conducting her investigation for either the traffic violation or the drug activity.
Keep in mind: Every stop impacts the freedom and liberty of the person you’re stopping, which means you should conduct your investigation quickly and efficiently. You should nevercut corners with an investigation, but you need to be diligent. If a suspect gives you the opportunity to confirm or dispel your suspicion (such as when the driver in this case consented to a search) you should act on the opportunity in a reasonable manner so you won’t delay the stop. And, if you still believe you need to wait for some other purpose (such as the arrival of a drug dog or backup), you should use that time to conduct the other business associated with the stop, such as writing out a traffic citation. The longer you delay the stop without good reason, the more likely any incriminating evidence you find will be suppressed.
to read the entire opinion.