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Ninth Circuit Announces SCOTUS’ Rodriguez Opinion Requires Overturning ‘Reasonableness Standard’ Precedent in Traffic Stop Prolongation Cases

by Richard Resch

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that police unlawfully prolonged a traffic stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment by repeatedly demanding that a passenger identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that he committed a criminal offense, and he refused to do so.

In February 2016, police officer Clinton Baker pulled over a car for speeding near the Pascua Yaqui Indian reservation, which has a 10 p.m. curfew for minors. The driver acknowledged that he was speeding, provided identification, and complied with Baker’s requests. There were three passengers in the car—Alfredo Landeros in the front passenger seat and two young women in the backseat. According to Baker, the two women looked younger than 18 years old, and he claimed to smell alcohol in the vehicle. By his own account, he didn’t believe Landeros was underage, and he wasn’t.

Baker requested identification from the two backseat passengers, explaining that they looked younger than 18. Both provided identification showing they were 21 and 19 years old. He then “commanded” Landeros to provide identification. He refused to do so and advised that he was not required to do so. Baker repeated his demand, and Landeros again refused. At that point, Baker called for back-up, thus prolonging the traffic stop. Officer Frank Romero arrived, and the two officers repeatedly “commanded” Landeros to exit the car for not being “compliant.”

He eventually exited the car, and as he did so, Baker saw, for the first time, pocketknives, a machete, and two open beers on the floor of the front passenger compartment. Landeros was immediately arrested for the open containers and for “failure to provide his true full name and refusal to comply with directions of police officers,” in violation of Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann §§ 13-2412(A) and 28-622(A), respectively. Romero then asked to search Landeros’ pockets, and he consented. Romero recovered a smoking pipe and six bullets.

Landeros was subsequently charged with possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, and he filed a motion to suppress the evidence, which the district court denied. He then entered into a plea agreement preserving his right to appeal the motion and was sentenced to 405 days in prison and three years of supervised release.

The Court began its analysis by noting this case implicates “two doctrines, one concerning the circumstances under which law enforcement can prolong a stop, and the other governing when law enforcement can require a person to identify himself.” 

With respect to the first doctrine, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that police may perform certain unrelated checks during a lawful traffic stop but “may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015). The Rodriguez Court emphasized that it’s irrelevant at what point during an otherwise lawful stop the officer prolongs the stop for tasks unrelated to the traffic mission, i.e., before or after the completion of the particular traffic mission such as issuing a citation. The Ninth Circuit explained Rodriguez stands for the principle that independent (of the reason justifying the traffic stop) reasonable suspicion is required for prolonging the traffic stop to ask unrelated questions or conduct an unrelated investigation. 

The Court then announced that, in light of Rodriguez, its own previous precedent set forth in United States v. Turvin, 517 F.3d 1097 (9th Cir. 2008), and relied upon by the Government in the present case is no longer binding precedent. Turvin held that prolonging a traffic stop for unrelated investigatory purposes is permissible, even in the absence of reasonable suspicion, if “the circumstances surrounding the brief pause … were reasonable.” The Court explained that Rodriguez unambiguously rejects that type of reasonableness standard in determining whether prolonging a traffic stop for unrelated investigatory purposes is lawful. Rodriguez makes it clear that prolonging a traffic stop is legally permissible only when police have reasonable suspicion of an independent crime.

In applying Rodriguez to the present case, the Court ruled that the police impermissibly prolonged the traffic stop by repeatedly attempting to ascertain Landeros’ identity absent reasonable suspicion of an independent crime. Baker acknowledged that at no point did he believe Landeros was underage, so he couldn’t have had a reasonable suspicion that he was violating curfew or drinking while underage. 

Furthermore, his identity had no relation to the reason for which the traffic stop was initiated—enforcement of traffic laws to ensure that vehicles are safely and responsibly driven on public roadways. Because the prolongation of the traffic stop was neither supported by independent reasonable suspicion nor part of the legitimate purpose of the stop’s mission, the officers’ extension of the traffic stop constituted an unlawful seizure of Landeros in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Turning to the second doctrine implicated in this case, the Court rejected the Government’s argument that Landeros’ refusal to identify himself “provided reasonable suspicion of the additional offenses of failure to provide identification and failure to comply with law enforcement orders.” 

Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-2412(A) states it’s unlawful for a person “to fail or refuse to state the person’s true full name on request of a peace officer who has lawfully detained the person based on reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing or is about to commit a crime.” The Court explained that he couldn’t have violated this statute because he was never “lawfully detained.”

State law also provides that a “person shall not willfully fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order or direction of a police officer invested by law with authority to direct, control or regulate traffic.” § 28-622(A). The Court stated that the question is “whether law enforcement could lawfully order Landeros to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offense.” For the reasons discussed above, the Court concluded “the police could not lawfully order him to identify himself,” so his refusal to do so couldn’t “constitute a failure to comply with an officer’s lawful order” in violation of the statute. Similarly, his refusal to exit the car when initially ordered couldn’t constitute a violation of the statute because the stop was already unlawful by the time the order was given, and thus “the validity or not of the exit order standing alone does not matter,” the Court stated.  

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress. In light of the Court’s foregoing rulings in the opinion, it instructed that the bullets cannot be introduced into evidence since they were discovered as a result of the unconstitutional seizure of Landeros.  See: United States v. Landeros, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 1021 (9th Cir. 2019). 

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Editor’s note: The two doctrines at issue in this opinion are of great importance to the general public because virtually everyone in the country has the potential of being affected by one or both of them in the course of their daily life. As a reminder, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that police may not lawfully demand a person identify himself or herself in the absence of particularized suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a criminal offense. See Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47 (1979), and its progeny for more on this topic. 

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