Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Scope of traffic stop unlawfully extended

US v. Bowman:  Bowman was convicted of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, after police executed a dog sniff on Bowman’s vehicle after completing a traffic stop (Bowman had been stopped for speeding and weaving).  He moved to suppress the evidence obtained from his vehicle, and he was denied at the district court.  The Fourth Circuit held that the police officer had no consent to extend the traffic stop, nor did the police have a reasonable, articulable suspicion of ongoing criminal activity to justify extending the stop, and vacated the conviction.

In its analysis of the case, the Fourth Circuit described in detail the facts of the traffic stop, and how the officer involved issued Bowman a warning for speeding and unsafe movement of the vehicle, and then returned his license and registration, completing the traffic stop.  Unfortunately, the officer then kept Bowman in custody in his police cruiser and continued asking Bowman questions about his activities that evening.  Further, the officer forced Bowman to remain in the police cruiser while the officer proceeded to question Bowman’s passenger.  The Fourth Circuit determined that the officer unlawfully prolonged the completed traffic stop without consent or reasonable suspicion; the officer detained Bowman without his consent in order to interrogate Bowman’s passenger and search the vehicle.

The main question the Fourth Circuit sought to answer in this appeal was whether the officer’s actions during the stop were reasonable under the circumstances, and whether the officer violated Bowman’s Fourth Amendment rights when the otherwise-completed stop was extended.  It found that Bowman did not consent to extending the stop, so the panel moved on to the next question, whether the prolonged seizure was justified by reasonable suspicion.  The Fourth Circuit ticked methodically through each of the factors the police officer mentioned as his basis for suspecting criminal activity and justified the questioning of Bowman’s passenger (i.e., nervousness, the presence of clothing, food, and an energy drink in the vehicle, Bowman’s uncertainty about his passenger’s girlfriend’s address where they had recently been, and Bowman’s statements about purchasing vehicles.  The Fourth Circuit determined that these factors were individually totally innocuous, and even in combination, did not become suspicious.  Thus, it concluded that Bowman’s motion to suppress should have been granted.

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