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Fourth Circuit: Commercial Vehicle Permit Requirement Insufficient Grounds to Initiate Traffic Stop

On October 28, 2017, Jaison R. Feliciana was driving a bakery delivery truck on the George Washington Memorial Parkway when he was stopped by U.S. Park Police Officer Jonathan Alto. Alto was aware that “commercial vehicles” are prohibited from driving on the Parkway except “when authorized by permit.” 36 C.F.R. Section 5.6(a), 7.96(f). Alto testified that he pulled Feliciana over solely based on his observation of “a commercial truck on the Parkway.”

After noticing a pipe on the floor of the vehicle, Alto searched Feliciana and found a small bag of marijuana in his shoe. Feliciana was charged with possession of marijuana and operating a commercial vehicle without a permit on the Parkway, both misdemeanors.

The magistrate judge denied his motion to suppess the evidence obtained during the traffic stop, and the denial was upheld by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on review. The Government argued, and the district court agreed, that the search was justified on the hunch that Feliciana was driving without a permit and that the stop was a warrantless administrative inspection because the Parkway is a pervasively regulated federal enclave.

Reviewing this determination on appeal, the Fourth Circuit disagreed.

Reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is required to overcome the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement unless the government can establish some other exception. Kansas v. Glover, 140 S. Ct. 1183 (2020). For Fourth Amendment purposes, a traffic stop is a seizure that must be justified by reasonable suspicion. Id. To support a reasonable suspicion, “the detaining officer must ... either articulate why a particular behavior is suspicious or logically demonstrate, given the surrounding circumstances, that the behavior is likely to be indicative of some more sinister activity than may appear at first glance.” United States v. Williams, 808 F.3d 238 (4th Cir. 2015). The government has the burden to justify a warrantless seizure. United States v. McGee, 736 F.3d 263 (4th Cir. 2013).

In the present case, the Government argued that a commercial truck on the Parkway is inherently suspicious because permits are rarely granted, but the Court rejected this argument, finding “no evidence in the record to support” it.

The Court found this case analogous to Delaware v. Prouse, 44 U.S. 648 (1979), where the Supreme Court held it is unreasonable to “stop[ ] an automobile and detain[ ] the driver in order to check his driver’s license and the registration of the automobile ... under the Fourth Amendment” absent reasonable suspicion of criminality (such as running the vehicle’s plates and discovering the registration had expired or the owner’s license had been revoked).

Thus, the Court determined, based on the record, that there was no “particularized and objective basis for suspecting illegality,” i.e., suspicion to believe Feliciana was driving without the required permit.

Alternatively, the Government’s argument regarding warrantless administrative inspections is based on New York v. Burger, 482 U.S. 691 (1987). Under Burger, such warrantless searches are permissible but must satisfy all three criteria enumerated in that opinion, the first of which is that “there must be a substantial government interest that informs the regulatory scheme pursuant to which the inspection is made.” Id.

The regulatory scheme relied on by the Government is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) regulations governing FMCSA agents or others designated to act as such, “to enter upon and perform inspections of a motor carrier’s vehicles in operation and intermodal equipment in operation.” 49 C.F.R. Section 396.9(a).

The Court noted this argument is flawed (1) because Officer Alto was not authorized by the FMCSA to perform searches, and (2) his reason for stopping Feliciana’s vehicle had nothing to do with FMCSA regulations. Because the Government could not establish even this first prong of the Burger test, the administrative inspection argument failed, the Court ruled.

The Court concluded that “the Government has failed to show that Officer Alto possessed reasonable suspicion of illegality when he stopped Feliciana’s truck or that he acted pursuant to an administrative inspection scheme in conducting the stop.” Consequently, the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment, so any evidence obtained as a result of the stop must be suppressed, the Court ruled.

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Related legal case

United States v. Feliciana

 

 

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