Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Fourth Circuit Held That A Traffic Stop Of Defendant That Lasted 15 Minutes And Focused On Drug Related Activity Was Unreasonable Under 4th Amendment

The Fourth Circuit decided the issue of whether the law enforcement officer diligently pursued the traditional purposes of a traffic stop, i.e., investigating whether a traffic infraction occurred and issuing a ticket. The Fourth Circuit held that the officer violated the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights and affirmed the lower court's decision to suppress evidence seized (34,091 Oxycodone pills and $1,450) following the search and certain statements the defendant made to law enforcement officers.

In this case, Maryland State Trooper Conner effectuated a stop of the defendant-appellee, Stephen Digiovanni's car for traveling too close to the car in front of him, in violation of Maryland law. Trooper Connor asked Digiovanni numerous questions concerning his travel history and travel plans. Trooper Connor was suspicious that Digiovanni was involved in criminal activity. Trooper Conner testified that he was suspicious of the hanging shirts in Digiovanni's clean rental car because he thought that non-drug traffickers traveling on vacation would pack clothing and the car had nothing "indicating that [he was] living on the road, nonstop driving." At the conclusion of this questioning, Trooper Conner asked questions to Digiovanni about the presence of drugs, instead of either completing the warning ticket or beginning the driver's license check.

After Digiovanni gave permission to search the trunk and could not open the trunk, Trooper Conner had yet another opportunity to complete the warning ticket or begin the driver's license check but he continued his questioning of Digiovanni concerning the presence of drugs in the car. About ten minutes into the stop, Trooper Conner returned to his patrol car. Instead of beginning the driver's license check, he radioed for back-up assistance. After doing so, Trooper Conner finally relayed Digiovanni's driver's license information to the dispatcher. Thereafter, Trooper Conner completed the warning ticket.

Approximately fifteen minutes into the stop, Trooper Conner returned to Digiovanni his driver's license and the rental contract, and issued him a warning ticket. Soon afterward, Trooper Connor returned to the subject of drugs. Thinking that he was bound by the earlier verbal consent to search, Digiovanni replied to Trooper Connor that he could search the car and provided written consent. Trooper Conner recovered 34,091 Oxycodone pills and $1,450 in U.S. currency.

A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Digiovanni with possession with intent to distribute Oxycodone, in violation of 21 U.S.C § 841(a)(1). Digiovanni moved to suppress the physical evidence seized following the search and certain statements he made to law enforcement officers. The federal district court granted Digiovanni's motion to suppress. The United States appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.
The Fourth Circuit analyzed the issue pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968): (1) whether the police officer's action was justified at its inception; and (2) whether the police officer's subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop. Under the first prong, the Fourth Circuit found that "there is no dispute that the traffic stop in this case, at its inception, was justified."

Under the second prong of Terry, the Fourth Circuit determined that the seizure was not limited in both scope and duration under the totality of the circumstances. Although the "maximum acceptable length of a routine traffic stop cannot be stated with mathematical precision," the Fourth Circuit agreed with the district court that Trooper Conner did not diligently pursue the traditional purposes of a traffic stop, i.e., investigating whether a traffic infraction occurred and issuing a ticket. The Fourth Circuit explained that the officer's unrelated questioning was extensive and time-consuming. The court explained, "the record, in particular the video, makes clear that at just about every turn Trooper Conner was conducting a drug investigation instead of a traffic infraction investigation. Indeed, the bulk of the encounter between Trooper Conner and Digiovanni involved a drug investigation, as the driver's license check did not even begin until approximately ten minutes into the stop, and, in fact, it never was completed."

Further, the Fourth Circuit rejected the government's argument that Trooper Connor had reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot to prolong the traffic stop because the court found "absurd" Trooper Connor's reliance on the clean car and the hanging clothes in the back seat.

Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court in granting the motion to suppress evidence.

The case is U.S. v. Digiovanni, No. 10-4417, dated July 25, 2011. To review the full decision, click here