Fourth Circuit Holds Traffic Stop Improperly Extended: Miller
In United States v. Miller, No. 21-4086 (4th Cir. 2022), the Fourth Circuit held that a police stop had been improperly extended.
Miller is Stopped for a Traffic Offense, Eventually Charged with Felon in Possession of a Firearm
Miller was charged with one count of unlawfully possessing a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. 922(g). The firearm was discovered during a traffic stop where Miller was traveling in the backseat of a vehicle. An officer stopped the vehicle for a faulty taillight and issued a printed citation to the driver. After that, the officer used his canine to sniff the vehicle and conducted a full search of the car when the dog alerted. The officer uncovered two firearms in Miller’s backpack.
Miller moved to suppress the evidence of the search on the basis that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop and conduct the search. The district court denied Miller’s motion.
The district court had found the officer had reasonable suspicion based on (1) the officer’s experience and training; (2) the alleged excessive nervousness of the driver; and (3) the driver was slow to pull over.
Following a bench trial, Miller was convicted.
On appeal before the Fourth Circuit, Miller argued that the district court erred in denying her motion to suppress.
Notes on Traffic Stops, Canine Searches and Reasonable Suspicion
Most of us have had the unfortunate experience of getting stopped by the police. Usually, these happen in a certain way: the police officer stops the driver, asks them questions, decides on whether to give a ticket or not, and then it's over. But there is much more happening under the surface.
In order for a police officer to engage in a traffic stop the officer has to have "probable cause" that a traffic violation has occurred (this makes a normal amount of sense, usually the police officer sees a person running a red light or has radar that shows that a person is speeding). If a police officer believes that you have committed a traffic offense, usually they are only allowed to keep you long enough to give you a ticket and run your license and registration for warrants (see above).
Extending a Traffic Stop to Call a Dog
There are certain circumstances where a police officer can extend a stop longer than the amount of time where they can give someone a ticket in order to call a police dog to sniff around the car in order to look for illegal things such as certain types of drugs. In order for a police officer to do that they must have "reasonable suspicion" that a crime is taking place. If there is no reasonable suspicion that a crime is taking place other than the traffic offense, the stop must end; the stop cannot be extended and no drug dog can be called. A traffic stop that was reasonable at the time of inception can violate the Fourth Amendment when an officer extends the stop beyond the time required to issue a citation
Reasonable Suspicion in a Traffic Stop Context
There are enough court cases on reasonable suspicion to fill books and books. Reasonable suspicion requires more than a hunch and more than an officer's gut or an officer labelling a behavior as suspicious just to make it so.
To support reasonable suspicion, an officer must state “specific and articulable facts that demonstrate at least a minimal level of objective justification for the belief that criminal activity is afoot.” These facts were required at the time of the search.
When evaluating whether a police officer had probable cause, the courts can be “mindful of the practical experience of officers who observe on a daily basis what transpires on the street.” The courts evaluate whether probable cause existed by looking at each factor individually before looking at all of them together.
Factors that weigh into a reasonable suspicion inquiry, as relevant here, can include:
- Nervousness "whether the driver was fidgeting, shaking, or talking nervously."
- The road the driver was traveling on and the length of time it took the driver to pull over
- Whether an officer's testimony is clearly contradicted by video evidence.
However, this is not an exhaustive list.
The Fourth Circuit Reviews the Officer's Reasonable Suspicion
The court first addressed whether the driver was excessively nervous during the stop. “As [the Fourth Circuit] has recognized on multiple occasions, a driver’s nervousness is not a particularly good indicator of criminal activity, because most everyone is nervous when interacting with the police.”
The officer had testified that the driver was excessively nervous because she was allegedly shaking during the stop, talking excessively, and tapping her fingers on the outside of the car door. However, the Fourth Circuit viewed the video evidence of the officer’s body cam and concluded that it did not support some of the officer’s statements and impressions. Specifically, the court concluded that the video did not show that the driver’s ands were shaking and that her demeanor did not change throughout the conversation. Thus, the district court erred by finding the driver was excessively nervous.
Length of Time to Pull Over
The video evidence also contradicted the officer’s testimony that the driver was slow to pull over. Instead, the video evidence from the dashboard camera showed that the driver stopped within a reasonable time and, contrary to the district court’s findings, the video demonstrated that the driver did not pass any well-lit or otherwise safe places to stop. In fact, the driver began braking just four seconds after the officer turned on his lights, and came to a complete stop within thirteen seconds.
Known Drug Corridor
Lastly, the district court believed it was relevant to the reasonable suspicion analysis that the car was traveling through a “known drug corridor.” But the Fourth Circuit has previously held that “traveling on a known drug corridor is not itself probative of criminal behavior and does not serve to eliminate substantial portion of innocent travelers.”
Fourth Circuit: Reasonable Suspicion not Present here
The Fourth Circuit concluded that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to extend the stop beyond issuance of a citation. Because the extension of the traffic stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion, the district court erred in denying Miller’s motion to suppress evidence seized during the subsequent search. Accordingly, the district court’s order was reversed and Miller’s conviction and sentence vacated.