Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Collection of Innocent Factors Doesn't Add Up to Reasonable Suspicion During Traffic Stop

US v. Williams: Williams was in a car that was pulled over on the Interstate in North Carolina, just behind a car drive by his brother (which was also pulled over). Williams was given a written warning for speeding, but was then asked by the officer if there was anything illegal in the car. Williams said no and denied consent to search the car. The officer then told Williams to "hold on" while another officer conducted a dog sniff of the car, The dog alerted and drugs were found in the car. Less than three minutes passed between Williams getting the warning and the dog's alert. Williams moved to suppress the evidence discovered as a result of the search. The district court denied the motion after holding two hearings on the matter, concluding that the officers had reasonable suspicion based on four factors, that: (1) Williams was in a rental car; (2) he was on a "known drug corridor" after midnight; (3) his travel plans were inconsistent with the date by which the rental car needed to be returned; and (4) he was unable to provide a permanent home address, having given a PO Box (which differed from the address on his New York drivers license) and stated that he lived sometimes with his girlfriend in New Jersey.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court's denial of the motion to suppress. The court found that the factors relied upon by the district court did not create reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. For example, none of the officers "explained any connection between use of a rental car and criminal activity." Similarly, while the Interstate may be a known route for drug traffickers, "the number of persons using the interstate highways as drug corridors pales in comparison to the number of innocent travelers on the road." That the rental agreement seemed inconsistent with travel plans was also irrelevant because rental agreements could be easily extended or modified and "no reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminality arises from the mere fact that Williams's travel plans were likely to exceed the initial duration of the rental agreement." Finally, as to the addresses, none of the officers "explained how using a post office box address, or living in New York or New Jersey, raised some suspicion of criminal activity." Even taken together, the four factors "fail to eliminate a substantial portion of innocent travelers" and did not provide reasonable suspicion to extend the stop.

Congrats to the Defender office in the Middle District of NC on the win!

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