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California Court of Appeal: Traffic Stop Prolonged for Drug Dog Sniff Search Unrelated to ‘Mission’ of Stop Violates Fourth Amendment

by Anthony W. Accurso

The Court of Appeal of California, Fourth Appellate District, overturned the denial of a defendant’s motion to suppress, holding that the officer impermissibly extended a traffic stop to conduct a drug dog sniff around the exterior of the defendant’s vehicle.

Officer Anthony McGlade of the Anaheim Police Department received a tip about a black pickup truck that “had acted suspiciously” around the Tampico motel, where “drug trafficking was a problem.” No further details were provided other than that vague statement.

McGlade was on duty with Titan, a narcotics detection dog. He located and followed the suspect vehicle until the driver allegedly executed an improper lane change, and he initiated a traffic stop, activating his body camera.

McGlade made contact with the driver, Joseph Gyorgy. He obtained Gyorgy’s California driver’s license but then proceeded to ask him “several questions, including whether Gyorgy was on probation or parole, whether he was a narcotics or sex registrant, whether he had any needles or sharp objects in the truck, and whether he had any weapons or drugs in the truck.” Importantly, according to the record, other than obtaining Gyorgy’s driver’s license, there is no indication that McGlade or any other officer on scene performed any activity related to the initial purported justification for the traffic stop, viz., the alleged “unsafe” lane change in violation of Veh. Code § 22107.

Upon learning that Gyorgy was a registered sex offender, McGlade initiated a line of questioning about his living situation, eventually eliciting that Gyorgy had been at hotels in Anaheim for the last two nights.

“About four or five minutes in[to]” the stop, McGlade ordered Gyorgy out of the vehicle for a pat search, then deferred the pat search until a second officer, John Pasqualucci, arrived. After the pat search revealed nothing incriminating, McGlade informed him Titan would perform an exterior sniff of his truck. Gyorgy objected to the search, but McGlade declared, “It really doesn’t matter what you think. I have the right to be able to do this.” In preparation for Titan’s sniff search, Gyorgy removed his small dog from the cabin of the truck.

Titan alerted on two areas around the vehicle, and in response, McGlade performed a search of the truck. He located methamphetamine and a glass pipe with residue, an unloaded firearm, an empty magazine, and six live rounds of ammo. Gyorgy was placed under arrested and charged with unlawful possession of drugs, paraphernalia, a firearm, and ammunition.

Gyorgy filed a motion prior to arraignment to suppress the evidence located during the stop, arguing that it was impermissibly prolonged in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. After hearing testimony from McGlade about the stop, the magistrate judge denied the motion, stating: “In summary, we have a lawful traffic stop. We have a lawful detention. The detention was not prolonged.” After his arraignment, Gyorgy once again moved to suppress the evidence on the grounds that it was obtained during an unlawfully prolonged traffic stop. A different judge denied the motion.

Following a jury trial, Gyorgy was convicted on the misdemeanor possession of methamphetamine and paraphernalia charges, and the trial court declared a mistrial as to the unlawful possession of a firearm and unlawful possession of ammo charges because the jury was unable to reach a verdict. He was placed on informal probation with a suspended imposition of sentence, and he timely appealed.

The Court of Appeal noted a traffic stop “constitutes a seizure of persons within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment” but is constitutionally reasonable “where police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.” Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). However, “a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.” Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015).

Under Rodriguez, the traffic stop may “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose” of the stop. The “mission” of the stop, aside from issuing a ticket, may include “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop such as checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Rodriguez. A dog sniff may lawfully be performed during the time it takes to carry out these tasks, but “may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining any individual.” Id.

Referring to McGlade’s testimony at the suppression hearing, the Court concluded “McGlade detoured from the traffic stop’s mission almost immediately.” Though he obtained Gyorgy’s license, he didn’t use it to run a validity or warrant check, and proceeded to “inquire[] into matters unrelated to the suspected traffic violation.” Not only did the dog sniff prolong the stop, but so did the “safety precautions” McGlade took to facilitate it such as the removal of the small dog from the passenger compartment of the truck, the Court explained. In fact, other than obtaining Gyorgy’s driver’s license, McGlade and the other officers on scene failed to undertake any tasks related to the “mission” of the traffic stop, i.e., the alleged unsafe lane change. Thus, the Court held that the police prolonged the traffic stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Accordingly, the Court vacated Gyorgy’s convictions and remanded with instructions to grant his suppression motion. See: People v. Gyorgy, 93 Cal. App. 5th 659 (2023).  

 

Editor’s note: It is notable that nine years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015), there still appears to be a troubling amount of confusion and ignorance regarding Rodriguez. Under Rodriguez, the current case is not difficult to resolve, yet two judges and the prosecution got it very wrong.

Rodriguez provides that a traffic stop must be “limited in scope and degree of intrusion by its purpose and may last no longer than reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.” See Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005). The Rodriguez Court instructed that traffic stop related inquiries are permissible such as “checking the driver’s license and any outstanding warrants against the driver, as well as inspecting the vehicle’s registration and insurance,” because such inquiries are related to the “mission” of the stop—addressing the alleged traffic violation that justified the stop and associated traffic-safety concerns. See Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009).

However, the Court made it abundantly clear that inquiries intended to detect “evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing” are not a part of the “mission” of a traffic stop and thus constitute the unlawful prolonging of the stop. The Court reiterated that a “dog sniff … is a measure aimed” at uncovering ordinary criminal wrongdoing and “not an ordinary incident of a traffic stop.” See Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000).

The Rodriguez Court explained that whether the prolonging of the traffic stop to conduct inquiries unrelated to the mission of the stop occurs before or after the “completion of the traffic infraction investigation” is irrelevant. Prolonging the traffic stop to investigate matters unrelated to the traffic infraction violates the Fourth Amendment regardless of when the prolonging occurs during the traffic stop.

Despite the Rodriguez Court setting forth the governing legal principles clearly, fully, and unambiguously, Gyorgy’s motion to suppress was wrongfully denied by two separate judges and opposed each time by the prosecution. Nevertheless, the facts and correct result are simple and straightforward.

An officer received a vague tip about a black truck in connection with possible drug activity. We know that the tip itself did not establish a legal basis for an investigative seizure because the officer did not immediately initiate a traffic stop upon locating the truck, but instead, he waited until the truck allegedly made an unsafe lane change to serve as the legal basis for initiating the traffic stop. Consequently, the “mission” of the stop was the claimed traffic infraction, not a drug investigation.

But, with the exception of obtaining Gyorgy’s driver’s license, nearly all of the officer’s activities during the stop were related to a drug investigation, not the purported traffic infraction, especially the drug detection dog’s sniff search of the truck’s exterior, which undoubtedly prolonged the traffic stop. Rodriguez dictates that this constitutes the unlawful prolonging of the traffic stop for a purpose unrelated to the traffic infraction. Additionally, Rodriguez instructs that it does not matter whether the prolonging occurs before or after the traffic infraction investigation concluded, so it is of no consequence that the exterior sniff search occurred prior to the conclusion of the traffic investigation.

Despite the straightforward resolution of the case, the lead police officer clearly does not understand Rodriguez, as evidenced by his declaring, “It really doesn’t matter what you think. I have the right to be able to do this [exterior sniff search].” When in fact, he clearly did not, and it is not even a close call. More unsettling is the fact that the two judges who denied the motion to suppress also do not appear to understand Rodriguez.

Similarly, the dissenting judge in the case believes that the “12-minute traffic stop” was not “unreasonably long” and “would hold this … traffic stop (a seizure) was not unreasonably long under the Fourth Amendment.” But the judge completely misses the point. The Rodriguez Court expressly rejected the notion that there is a de minimis exception to the rule prohibiting the prolonging of a traffic stop to inquire into matters unrelated to the “mission” of the stop. It is not the length of the prolonging of the stop that makes it unlawful; it is the prolonging itself.

With so many parties in just this case alone misconstruing Rodriguez, there is little doubt that other motions to suppress are similarly being wrongfully denied in other cases across the country. The “Rodriguez moment” (the precise point when all the tasks tied to the purpose of the lawful traffic stop concludes) should definitely be a point of focus for possible relief in any traffic stop in which police investigated matters unrelated to the “mission” of the stop and subsequently discovered contraband.

Related legal case

People v. Gyorgy

 

 

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