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Illinois Supreme Court: Motion to Suppress Statements Granted Where Police Prolonged Traffic Stop to Investigate Offenses Unrelated to the Stop

Cordell Bass was one of several passengers in a minivan that was pulled over by Chicago police officers after the driver ran a red light. While one officer spoke with the driver and completed necessary tasks related to the traffic infraction (checking driver’s license, making observations to determine intoxication, etc.), other officers ordered the passengers out of the van. Officers began running checks on their identification and learned of an “investigative alert” issued for Bass related to a sexual assault. Bass was arrested and shortly afterwards gave incriminating statements. The officers terminated the traffic stop by giving the driver a verbal warning.

Shortly before trial, Bass filed a motion to suppress his statements, arguing, inter alia, that the police officers extended the traffic stop longer than necessary to issue a ticket or warning and did so for the purpose of questioning other occupants to discover offenses unrelated to the running of a red light.

The police officers argued the traffic stop lasted only eight minutes, and the investigative alert gave them probable cause to arrest Bass. The trial court agreed that officers had probable cause and denied the motion.

Bass was convicted at an ensuing bench trial and appealed. He again argued, inter alia, that police unlawfully extended the traffic stop in order to investigate matters unrelated to the traffic stop, and his statements should have been suppressed. The appellate court agreed with Bass, ruling that his motion to suppress should have granted. The appellate court reversed his conviction and remanded for a new trial. The People sought further review.

The Illinois Supreme Court observed “[t]he [F]ourth [A]mendment prohibits unreasonable seizures.... A traffic stop is a seizure of both the driver and the passengers, analogous to a so-called Terry [v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968)] stop.” Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015). Determining whether a Terry stop was reasonable focuses on: (1) whether the officer’s action was justified at its inception and (2) whether the stop was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that lead to the police interference in the first place. Terry. A lawfully initiated traffic stop may violate the Fourth Amendment if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably related to its mission. Rodriguez. The “mission” of a traffic stop is to address the traffic violation that justified the stop, and the authority for the stop ends when that task either is, or should have been, completed. Id. Officers may inquire into matters unrelated to the traffic stop so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the traffic stop. Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009). Warrant checks on occupants of a lawfully stopped vehicle do not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment as long as the duration of the traffic stop is not extended for the purpose of the warrant checks. People v. Harris, 228 Ill.2d 222 (2008).

But officers cannot lawfully pursue unrelated investigations after quickly completing the mission by claiming the overall duration of the stop remained reasonable. Rodriguez. Nor may officers delay resolution of the stop (such as writing a ticket or giving a warning) until unrelated matters are completed. Id.

On a motion to suppress, the defendant bears the burden of establishing a prima facie case that the evidence at issue was obtained by an illegal seizure. People v. Gipson, 786 N.E.2d 540 (Ill. 2003). Once the defendant meets that burden, the People must then come forward with rebuttal evidence. Id.

In the instant case, Bass made a prima facie showing that the traffic stop was unlawfully prolonged, according to the Court. While the traffic stop was lawfully initiated based on the failure to stop at the red light, the name check had nothing to do with the traffic stop. The Court noted that the officers investigated the traffic violation and then delayed issuing a verbal warning for the sole purpose of checking passengers’ names until they found something else worth investigating.

The People admitted that the evidence in this case was “sparse,” and the Court determined that the People failed to produce evidence to rebut Bass’ prima facie showing. Merely because the traffic stop may have lasted only eight minutes does not rebut the claim that it could have ended sooner if not for the additional investigations and ID checks. Thus, the Court held “that the traffic stop here violated the fourth amendment and the motion to suppress should have been granted.”

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the judgment of the appellate court as to this issue and remanded for a new trial. See: People v. Bass, 2021 Ill. LEXIS 418 (2021). 

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