Thursday, July 01, 2021

Asking If There Was Anything Illegal In Car Within Scope of Traffic Stop

US v. BuzzardBuzzard and Martin* (charged in separate indictments, but consolidated for appeal) were in a car that was pulled over for a traffic violation just after leaving a gas station at 1:30 in the morning. The officer making the stop radioed in that he was stopping a vehicle with two men in it, then got out and approached the vehicle. He recognized Martin from previous dealings with him. "At some point during the stop," the officer asked if there was anything illegal in the car. Buzzard and Martin both produced drug paraphernalia. Additional officers arrived, Buzzard and Martin were removed from the car, and two pistols (wrapped in socks) were found under the front seats. After both defendants were charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, they moved to suppress the firearms, arguing that the officer had extended the traffic stop into a criminal investigation without cause. The district court denied the motion. Buzzard entered a conditional guilty plea and Martin was convicted at trial.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress. The defendants' primary argument was that by asking whether anything illegal was in the car it transformed the traffic stop into a criminal investigation. The court agreed with the district court that asking about "illegal" items in the car (as opposed to "dangerous" ones or weapons) was within the scope of a traffic stop and did not expand it into a criminal investigation, as it related to officer safety. In addition, the court concluded that the question "didn't extend the stop by even a second" because the officer was "mid-stop when he asked" (although this was disputed - the defendants both testified that it was the first thing the officer said as he approached the car) the question and did not yet have the information necessary to complete the routine incidents of a traffic stop.

* Full disclosure, I was part of the team that represented Martin on appeal.

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