Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Tenth Takes Broad View of Permissible Questioning During Routine Traffic Stop

U.S. v. Pettit, 2015 WL 2217115 (5/13/15) (Ut.) (Published) - A bad, post-Rodriguez traffic stop case. The 10th says without qualification that an officer may inquire about a driver's travel plans and matters unrelated to the stop. Hopefully, subsequent 10th Circuit panels and district courts don't take this literally. Other 10th cases, including the ones the 10th cites, limit these questions somewhat. "Unrelated" questions are okay only when the officer is waiting for some response or while otherwise conducting some stop-related activity like writing up the citation, i.e., not extending the duration of the stop with the questions. The 10th also says "generally" an officer may request consent to search luggage.

Nonetheless, the 10th does acknowledge Rodriguez says the stop may not be extended beyond the time reasonably required to effectuate the stop's purpose. When the officer finished the traffic citation and returned to Mr. Pettit's car, the stop's initial purpose was satisfied. From that point on, the officer needed reasonable suspicion to continue the detention, which the officer continued by retaining Mr. Pettit's documents.

No problem. There was reasonable suspicion because: (1) there were specific indicia that Mr. Pettit's nervousness was extreme; his lower body was moving nervously, his whole arm shook when he handed over the license; and most importantly Mr. Pettit said twice within the first 25 seconds of the stop that the officer made him nervous. The 10th dismissed the notion, mentioned in other 10th Circuit cases that it would be hard for an officer to know if a person was extra nervous when the officer had no previous acquaintance with the defendant; such a theory would eliminate nervousness as a factor, it didn't matter that Mr. Pettit could have been shaken by a "snow burst" he and the officer had just gone through, innocent explanations are essentially beside the point; (2) Mr. Pettit was driving a car that was not his, which can indicate drug trafficking, and had unusual, though perhaps not implausible, travel plans, i.e., he flew to California from Kansas and was driving a friend's car back to Kansas, which was consistent with the travel plans of a drug courier, while the plans were not enough for reasonable suspicion by themselves, they were worthy of consideration; and, perhaps most importantly, (3) Mr. Pettit had two suspended licenses, which "are usually suspended for less than law abiding conduct" and which made it less likely he would have volunteered to help a friend transport a car across the country alone rather, he would drive across country only if he were well compensated for carrying drugs; and the trooper had to ask for Mr. Pettit's license twice and Mr. Pettit passed over one license and produced one labeled "nondriver." Mr. Pettit questioned why the suspended licenses would be such a big deal when the 10th has cautioned about using prior criminal convictions; but the 10th was unperturbed, noting it was considering the license factor in combination with the other factors. While factors weighing against reasonable suspicion must be considered, the 10th says, the officer's failure to find any contraband when he searched Mr. Pettit's luggage for a minute was entitled to "little weight." In totality: reasonable suspicion.