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Seventh Circuit Affirms Suppression of Evidence Because Traffic Stop Unreasonably Prolonged

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that evidence obtained from an unlawfully extended traffic stop must be suppressed. The March 7, 2018, decision upheld the lower court’s ruling that the police officer did not have the reasonable suspicion necessary to extend the stop by the duration necessary to issue the traffic citations.

Mario Rodriguez-Escalera (“Rodriguez”) and his fiancée Blanca Moran were pulled over by Illinois State Trooper Kenneth Patterson. Patterson had observed their car abruptly switch lanes without using a turn signal. Moran was driving, so Patterson asked for her license, registration, and proof of insurance. He asked Moran to accompany him to the patrol car while he ran her information.

While Moran waited in the parked car, Patterson interrogated Rodriguez, who spoke little English. Rodriguez told Patterson that they were headed to Pennsylvania and gave him his Mexican ID card and driver’s license.

Patterson then returned to the patrol car to run Moran’s information. While in the car, Patterson questioned Moran. She told him that Rodriguez was her fiancée, that they had come from Los Angeles, and that they were headed to New York City for a vacation. Moran’s license came back suspended, but Rodriguez would be allowed to continue the trip because his Mexican license was valid. About 11 minutes into the stop, Patterson had all he needed to issue any citations and release Moran and Rodriquez.

But Patterson was suspicious. Moran and Rodriguez’s stories didn’t match up, they were from Los Angeles, there were multiple air fresheners in the vehicle, and they appeared nervous. He wanted to have a K-9 unit sniff the car, but the dog was occupied. So he took 22 minutes to write three routine citations. During this time, he asked whether Rodriguez knew they were going to New York. Moran smiled and said no because it was a surprise.

Despite the confusion about where they were heading being resolved, Patterson delayed the traffic stop another 11 minutes—the amount of time it took K-9 officer John Baudino to arrive with his dog. Immediately upon Baudino’s arrival, Patterson handed Moran her tickets.

Baudino walked the dog around the car. The dog did not alert. Patterson remained unconvinced, though, so he told Moran that she was free to go, but then asked if he could search the vehicle. Moran, who was still in the patrol car at the time, said yes.

Patterson and Baudino then searched the car. They found 7.5 pounds of meth in a suitcase and $28,000 in cash in Moran’s purse. Rodriguez and Moran were both arrested and charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1).

Moran and Rodriguez both filed motions to suppress. They argued that Patterson illegally prolonged the traffic stop and that Moran’s consent to search was not freely given. The district court held a two-day evidentiary hearing on Moran’s motion, with the evidentiary findings adopted in Rodriguez’s case as well. The district court found that Patterson did not have reasonable suspicion to extend the stop and granted both motions. The Government appealed.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit observed that any traffic stop must meet the reasonableness requirements of the Fourth Amendment. Here, the initial stop was reasonable—the trooper observed a clear traffic violation. However, the Court noted that “a seizure that is ‘lawful at its inception’ can nonetheless violate the Fourth Amendment if it is ‘prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete’ the initial mission of the stop.” The U.S. Supreme Court considered this time frame in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), and said the authority to detain a vehicle and its occupants for a traffic violation ends when the “tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.”

But an extended traffic stop may still be legal, if an officer has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Citing the seminal case Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), the Seventh Circuit said that “to justify a ‘particular intrusion [a] police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant th[e] intrusion.’”

Here, Patterson offered four bases to justify his suspicion: “(1) that Moran and Rodriguez appeared nervous; (2) that the couple was traveling from a ‘major narcotics distribution center,’ i.e., Moran’s home of greater Los Angeles; (3) that the two presented conflicting travel plans; and (4) the presence of multiple air fresheners in the car.” The district court found none of these factors convincing enough, either standing alone or in combination, to justify extending the stop. The appellate court agreed.

As an initial matter, the evidence belied Patterson’s claim that Moran and Rodriguez were nervous. Audio and video evidence showed just the opposite. The Court also was unconvinced that the conflicting stories created suspicion, mainly because they weren’t conflicting—Rodriguez just didn’t know that he was being surprised with a trip to New York City.

The presence of three air fresheners did not change the analysis, either. The Court noted that “[a] non-excessive presence of air fresheners . . . may show nothing more than a car owner’s preference for the smell of air fresheners or desire to cover up other, lawful odors.” Finally, the Court agreed with the district court in discounting the probative value of the fact that the couple began their trip in Los Angeles, which was “Moran’s home and the country’s second most populous city.”

Considering all of the factors together, the Court could not disagree with the district court’s finding that there was no rational basis to extend the traffic stop. Patterson’s actual reason for extending the stop was, of course, to give the K-9 unit time to get there. That’s no good though. They explained that extending an otherwise lawful initial traffic stop requires reasonable suspicion, which “requires more than a hunch or inchoate suspicion.”

Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the unlawfully extended traffic stop. See: United States v. Rodriguez-Escalera, 884 F.3d 661 (7th Cir. 2018). 


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Related legal case

United States v. Rodriguez-Escalera



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