US v. Donald T. Hill (App. No. 15-4639) (4th Cir., filed 3/30/17): Prolonged Detention of Car Stop; Important Dissent by Judge Davis.

This is an interesting case addressing law enforcement’s prolonging a roadside detention. The short of it is that law enforcement is not particularly obligated to be efficient during a stop as it conducts its duties. Here, law enforcement was patrolling a neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia. They saw a car that slightly exceeded the posted speed limit, and then that car crossed a solid yellow line. They decided to pull the car over.  Time:  6:01. The driver of the car (not Hill) immediately stepped out of the car, but got back in when the officers told him to. One of the officers recognized this guy as someone who hangs out with people connected to robberies. He also recognized Hill, who was the passenger, as someone who had been the victim of a stabbing incident.

Hill was unable to produce identification.  The officer then entered the names of both guys into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. About three minutes passed and the database returned an “alert” notifying the officer that both men had been associated with drug trafficking and were “likely armed.” The officer also realized that the driver had a suspended license. Time:  6:04.  The officer started writing summons for the driver– for reckless driving and suspended license. He also called for a K-9 unit.

The officer then stopped writing the summonses so he could check an additional database, PISTOL (“Police Information System Totally On Line”) which tracks every person who has prior contacts with Richmond police officers.  At the hearing, the officer testified this can be a lengthy process because PISTOL produces a list of all people who have the same name.  In this case, PISTOL produced a list of 8-9 people with the same name as the driver. The officer spent 3-5 minutes reviewing that list. While this officer was checking out PISTOL, the other cop was making small talk (yeah, right) with the driver and Hill.  This officer asked them three times whether they had drugs or firearms in the car.  After the third ask, Hill told him that he had a gun on him. The officer immediately yelled, “gun!” and the other officer assisted in securing Hill and taking his gun. As this was going on, the K-9 unit arrived.  The court found that approximately 20 minutes elapsed between the time of the stop and the moment that the officer yelled “gun!”.

Hill argued on appeal that the officers unlawfully extended the duration and scope of the traffic stop in violation of Hill’s Fourth Amendment rights. Specifically, he challenged one officer’s decision to talk with him and the driver instead of assisting the other officer searching the databases and writing the summonses. He also challenged the decision to request the K-9 unit and to search the PISTOL database.

Hill did not challenge the initial basis for the stop so the Court focused on the question of whether the “manner of execution [of the stop] unreasonably infringe[d]” on Hill’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.  Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407 (2005).  If a traffic stop is extended in time beyond the period that the officers are completing tasks related to the traffic infractions, the officers must either obtain consent from the individuals detained or identify reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to support the extension of the stop.  United States v. Williams, 808 F.3d 238, 245-46 (4th Cir. 2015).  The United States Supreme Court has recently clarified that extending a stop, even a de minimis length of time violates the Fourth Amendment. Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015).   In assessing the reasonableness of a stop, the Court will consider “what the police in fact do,” and whether the officers acted reasonably under the totality of the circumstances.  Rodriguez at 1616.

Here’s what cops get to do:

  • An officer may engage in certain safety measures during a traffic stop, but generally must focus on the initial basis for the stop.  United States v. Palmer, 820 F.3d 640, 649 (4th Cir. 2016).  An officer may engage in “ordinary inquiries incident to” the traffic stop, such as inspecting the driver’s license and license to operate the vehicle, has insurance, and whether driver has outstanding warrants.
  • Officers may also engage in other investigative techniques unrelated to the traffic infraction or the safety of the officers, but only so long as that activity does not prolong the roadside detention for the traffic infraction.

The Court quickly found that the officers’ actions in this case did not improperly prolong the detention, but also found that this case does not present a case of officers being intentionally dilatory in their duties.  The Court offers a very important final paragraph:

In sum, the Supreme Court’s decision in Rodriguez does not require courts to second-guess the logistical choices and actions of a police officer that, individually and collectively, were completed diligently within the confines of a lawful traffic stop.  We emphasize, however, that we are not confronted here with an officer’s decision to execute a traffic stop in a deliberately slow or inefficient manner, in order to expand a criminal investigation within the temporal confines of the stop without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or consent of those detained.  In such a case, an officer’s actions delaying the completion of the stop may compel a different conclusion than the one we reach here.  In the present case, however, we hold that because the evidence shows that the officers acted with reasonable diligence in executing the tasks incident to the traffic stop, and the stop was not impermissibly expanded in scope or time beyond the pursuit of the stop’s mission, the district court did not err in denying Hill’s motion to suppress.

Judge Davis authored an important dissent, noting that Hill was not the driver of this car, he was merely the passenger.  Davis finds the purpose of this stop to be “well known to all of us”– this was a narcotics and firearms investigation, undertaken in the absence of reasonable suspicion that a narcotics or firearms violations were occurring.  As Judge Davis notes:  “the ill-fated “War on Drugs” has a sometimes overlooked and unmentioned casualty:  the Fourth Amendment.”  Davis would have reversed the denial of the motion to suppress pursuant to Rodriguez.