The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which applies to state action by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. amend. IV.
Not just any search and seizure.
The Fourth Amendment provides individuals freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, as “[t]he underlying command of the Fourth Amendment is always that searches and seizures be reasonable.” Wilson v. Arkansas, 514 U.S. 927, 931 (1995).
The general rule is that the state cannot make an arrest of an individual without first obtaining a warrant for the arrest from a neutral and detached magistrate. To account for the complexities and complications of modern crime fighting in a nation hell bent on gun ownership, the Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio that law enforcement may detain an individual for a brief period of time pursuant to an investigation related to specific and articulable suspicions that the person is engaged in criminal activity. While stopped, and only within reason, law enforcement may frisk the suspect for the presence of weapons when there is reason to believe officer safety is at risk. Thus, the Terry “stop and frisk,” was born. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1.
Because a traffic stop is more analogous to an investigative detention (Terry stop) than a custodial arrest, the law treats a traffic stop under the standard set forth in Terry for an investigative detention. In Terry, the Supreme Court presciently cautioned against the potential for stops of this nature to swallow the general rule that law enforcement must obtain a warrant prior to a custodial arrest. In order to retain the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, and with it an individual’s reasonable expectations of privacy, the Court set forth a two-step analysis for any investigative detention. First, courts must analyze whether the police officer’s action was justified at its inception. Second, courts must analyze whether the police officer’s subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop. Id.
As in the Fourth Amendment, “reasonableness” rules the day.
A traffic violation “provides sufficient justification for a police officer to detain the offending vehicle for as long as it takes to perform the traditional incidents of a routine traffic stop.” United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 335 (4th Cir. 2008). Right off the bat, any traffic violation will satisfy the first prong of a Terry analysis.
That does not mean law enforcement automatically satisfies the second prong, though. The traffic stop must be limited both in scope and duration. Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 291 (1983) (noting that the scope of a seizure “must be carefully tailored to its underlying justification.”). Scope requires that “the investigative methods employed should be the least intrusive means reasonably available to verify or dispel the officer’s suspicion in a short period of time.” Id. Duration, meanwhile, requires police to diligently pursue a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly. Id.
The tolerable duration of a traffic stop is for a time long enough for a reasonably diligent officer to complete its original mission. Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015). “Typically, such inquiries involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 408 (2005). While completing those tasks incident to the traffic stop, an officer may conduct other unrelated checks, but not in a way that prolongs the stop absent the finding of reasonable suspicion ordinarily required to stop and investigate an individual for suspected criminal activity. Id. Thus, absent reasonable suspicion, “authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been – completed.” Id.
According to the Court, the reasonableness of a police officer’s actions during a traffic stop turns on his diligence in accomplishing the purposes of stop, that is, investigating whether a traffic infraction occurred and issuing a ticket. Id. The “diligence calculus includes an examination of the subject matter of the unrelated questioning and whether the unrelated questioning was conducted out of concern for officer safety.” Id. at 495.
The reasonable suspicion standard is an objective one, as it requires the court to examine the facts within law enforcement’s knowledge to determine the presence or nonexistence of reasonable suspicion. Courts therefore “view the facts through the eyes of a reasonable, cautious officer, guided by his experience and training at the time he determined to detain the defendant.” State v. Myles, 188 N.C. App. at 47. In an effort to preserve an individual’s reasonable expectations of privacy, “the requisite degree of suspicion must be high enough,” to avoid “arbitrary invasions solely at the unfettered discretion of officers in the field.” State v. Fields, 195 N.C. App. 640, 744, 673 S.E.2d 765, 767 (2009).
Otherwise innocent facts might give rise to reasonable suspicion when the reasonable officer considers them collectively within the totality of the surrounding circumstances, but “the articulated innocent factors collectively must serve to eliminate a substantial portion of innocent travelers before the requirement of reasonable suspicion will be satisfied.” United States v. Digiovanni, 650 F.3d at 511. If the reasonable officer cannot eliminate a substantial portion of innocent travelers, the suspicions amount to a mere hunch that fails to establish the predicate reasonableness required under the Fourth Amendment to detain an individual. Should the officer detain an individual on a mere hunch after the officer completed the traffic stop, or reasonably should have completed it, then the subsequent investigation, however brief, unduly prolongs the detention in violation of the 4th Amendment.
Such was the position of the North Carolina Court of Appeals on May 5, 2016 in State v. Bedient, a decision that ruled an officer did not establish reasonable suspicion to detain an individual for longer than was necessary to complete the traffic stop – unduly prolonged, by the way, for just two question beyond the scope of the completed traffic stop. Click here for the full text.
In Bedient, the officer stopped the defendant at 11:30pm for the driver’s failure to dim her high beams. When the officer approached the defendant, he asked for her license and registration, in addition to sparking casual conversation during which the defendant revealed that the passenger in the car was her daughter. The defendant took 20 seconds to find her license. The officer observed that she was fidgety and reaching all over the car in odd places to look for her license. After a while, the officer recognized the defendant as one who was at the residence of a local drug dealer the night before when law enforcement investigated an unrelated incident. When she provided him her license, the officer went back to his patrol car and ran the license. He wrote the citation for her failure to beam headlights and then approached for the second time. While with her the second time, the officer provided her the citation; however, instead of informing the defendant that she was free to leave, he instead continued to ask her two questions: 1) whether she had ever been in trouble for anything, and 2) whether she had anything unlawful in her car. The officer obtained her consent to search the car through these questions and eventually found evidence to charge her with possession and paraphernalia.
The Court of Appeals ruled that the officer’s prolonged detention, which began the moment he asked her questions after which a reasonably diligent officer would have completed the traffic stop, was not supported with reasonable suspicion. The only two factors the Court of Appeals considered relevant to reasonable suspicion were the defendant’s nervousness in combination with her association with a known local drug dealer. North Carolina law is replete with examples where neither of those factors, standing alone, constitute reasonable suspicion.
When in combination, however, the facts still failed to meet the threshold burden to detain the individual any longer than would be necessary for a reasonably diligent officer to complete the initial task that justified the detention in the first place. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the combination of the two factors could give rise only to a “hunch” of criminal activity, not reasonable suspicion, because even when considered in tandem the factors would not “eliminate a substantial portion of innocent travelers,” necessary to avoid general, rather than individual, suspicion.
As a result, the Court of Appeals excluded the evidence obtained during the unduly prolonged stop, including any such evidence poisoned from the unconstitutional detention. This case is a recent example of life after Rodriguez, where there are no de minimis exceptions to the need to establish reasonable suspicion for any unrelated questions that go beyond the permissible scope of the initial traffic detention. It is therefore important to delve into the minutia of each case involving an officer’s decision to investigate a suspect incident to a traffic stop. Without reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop, the law is clear in its stance to exclude any such evidence found pursuant to the subsequent detention.