Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Separate questioning of vehicle passengers does not impermissibly prolong traffic stop

US v. Vaughan:  The driver of a rental car, stopped in early January 2011 for traveling 79 mph in a 70-mph zone, challenged the length of time the Greenville, VA state police took in investigating his traffic violation. Appellant Vaughan failed to have evidence discovered during the traffic stop suppressed at the district court; he received a 120-month sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession with intent to deliver cocaine. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed his sentence.

Terrence Vaughan and passenger, McKinley Scott, were heading north through Virginia around 10:43a.m., when a ten-year-veteran Virginia state trooper pulled them over for speeding. When the trooper looked into the vehicle, he observed four cell phones in the center console, two of which were "TracFones," pre-paid phones that can be obtained with no personal information, as well as a visibly nervous passenger, Scott, leaned back in the passenger seat. At the trooper’s request, Vaughan got out of his vehicle, and sat in the police cruiser, answering questions about the purpose and details of his travels. The trooper went back to the rental car and asked similar identification and travel details from Scott, who provided somewhat different responses than Vaughan’s.

Based on the cell phones, Scott’s nervousness, and the differing stories of Vaughan and Scott, the trooper requested a canine unit to come to the scene. While waiting a "couple of minutes" for the arrival of the canine unit, the trooper began filling out a contact report form, which must be filled out "on every traffic stop." During the same time, the trooper conducted background check on Scott, having confirmed the validity of Vaughan’s driver’s license. Upon arrival, the canine unit gave a positive alert for narcotics in the vehicle. The subsequent search of the vehicle revealed a handgun and 830.6 grams of cocaine. According to the trooper’s uncontested testimony, the whole stop last thirteen minutes prior to the arrival of the canine unit.

The Fourth Circuit concluded that reasonable suspicion existed at the moment the trooper determined that the suspect individuals’ explanations of their itinerary differed, approximately 6-9 minutes after the stop began. It held that when four cell phones are present in a vehicle with only two passengers, the presence of the phones constitutes a valid factor in reasonable suspicion analysis. The suspects’ conflicting answers "especially" contributed to the reasonable suspicion.

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