Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Stop for Speeding, Following to Close, OK Under Fourth Amendment

US v. Mubdi:  Mubdi (and a passenger) were stopped along the Interstate in North Carolina for speeding and following too closely.  During the ensuing traffic stop, a drug dog alerted on the car.  The subsequent search uncovered drugs and firearms.  Mubdi was charged with drug and firearm offenses as a result.  He moved to suppress the evidence found in the car, arguing both that the officer who stopped him lacked probable cause to do so and, even if such cause existed, the stop was unduly prolonged without reasonable suspicion.  The district court denied the motion and Mubdi entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to 300 months in prison.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Mubdi's conviction and sentence.  As to the basis for the stop, the court concluded that the officer had probable cause to believe both that Mubdi was speeding and following too closely, as defined by North Carolina law.  As to the speeding, the court noted that although the officer used only visual means to estimate Mubdi's speed this case was quite different from the court's recent decision in Sowards, in which the officer utilizing the same visual method was "to put it mildly, measurement-challenged."  Without such difficulties present in the record, there was probable cause to stop Mubdi for speeding.  Alternately, the court held that there was also probable cause to stop him for following too closely, rejecting Mubdi's argument that the North Carolina regulation did not apply in the situation at hand (in which he was overtaking another car) and that, even if it did, it was a mistake of fact, rather than one of law, and did not prevent the officer from making the stop.  As to the stop itself, although the court appeared to conclude that the stop was not unduly prolonged at all (the drug dog arrived while the officer was writing the ticket), it also concluded that there was reasonable suspicion to extend the stop, based on Mubdi's behavior.  Finally, the court upheld Mubdi's sentence, turning away a challenge to the applicable mandatory minimum under binding Supreme Court precedent.

Judge Davis authored an interesting concurring opinion.  He laid out how expanding Supreme Court precedent on traffic stops has allowed the officers involved in this case to do precisely what they did - conduct a drug interdiction investigation in the guise of a traffic stop: "it was not for nothing that, as shown on the video taken by the dashboard camera in [the officer]'s vehicle, the officers in this case expressed unmitigated glee, punctuated by serial 'fist-bumps' all around, when the cache of more than two hundred grams of crack cocaine was removed from the [car]."  He concluded that the speeding justification was similar to the one in Sowards and therefore insufficient to support the stop.  However, he agreed with the majority on the following too closely analysis and concurred as to all other parts of the opinion.

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