Thursday, July 28, 2011

Tailgating traffic stop lasts too long

US v. Digiovanni: The government appealed the district court's decision in this case to suppress evidence found after a traffic stop for tailgating lead to a baseless, involuntary vehicle search on I-95. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's decision to suppress.

In addressing the length of the stop, the district court found that it lasted longer than necessary, at approximately 15 minutes, when the purpose of the stop was to issue Digiovanni with a warning not to tailgate. The police officer did not diligently check Digiovanni's license, instead he embarked on a unwarranted drug investigation, not supported by any reasonable suspicion. The district court also found fault with the officer's coercive attitude during the traffic stop and the involuntariness of the written consent Digiovanni signed.

Neither party disputed the lawful nature of the traffic stop at its inception; however, the seizure was not limited in both scope and duration as required under Terry: if the officer wants to extend the discussion outside the scope of the initial stop, there must be reasonable suspicion or he must receive the driver's consent. Unrelated questions during an investigative stop are okay, but they cannot extend the length of the time in which the defendant is detained.

The articulated facts of the case, according to the district court, simply did not eliminate a substantial portion of innocent travelers, so there was no reasonable suspicion to investigate Digiovanni beyond the traffic stop. The video evidence from the police car helped to expose the absurdity of the stop and its justifications to great effect.

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