Ninth Circuit: Officers Cannot Extend Traffic Stop Without Reasonable Suspicion

Recently, the Ninth Circuit held that officers may not extend a lawfully initiated traffic stop because a passenger refuses to identify himself absent reasonable suspicion that the individual committed a criminal offense.

In February 2016, Officer Clinton Baker pulled over a vehicle exceeding the speed limit. Alfredo Landeros was a passenger in the front seat of the vehicle, and two young women were passengers in the back seat of the vehicle. The traffic stop occurred near the Pascua Yaqui Indian reservation, which has a curfew for minors. Officer Baker asked the driver for identification, and the driver provided it to him.

Officer Baker later testified that he smelled alcohol in the car and that the two women in the back seat appeared to him to be minors. Officer Baker therefore asked the women to provide him with identification, and they did. Officer Baker also testified that he did not believe that Landeros was underage. Nonetheless, Officer Baker “commanded” Landeros to provide identification to him. Landeros refused to identify himself or provide to Officer Baker his identification. Officer Baker repeated his request, and Landeros again refused to comply. Officer Baker then called for backup, prolonging the stop.

Officer Frank Romero then arrived on the scene and also asked Landeros for his identification. Landeros refused Officer Romero’s request. The officers commanded Landeros to leave the car. Officer Baker testified that as Landeros exited the car he saw, for the first time, pocketknives, a machete, and two open beer bottles by the front passenger seat. Since Arizona law prohibits open containers of alcohol in cars on public highways, Officer Baker placed Landeros under arrest. Officer Romero then requested consent to search Landeros’s pockets, and Landeros agreed. Officer Romero found a smoking pipe and six bullets.

Landeros was indicted for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. He moved to suppress the evidence and dismiss the indictment. The magistrate judge recommended the district court deny both motions, and the district court did. Landeros then entered into a plea agreement that preserved his right to appeal the denials of his motions. Landeros later appealed the district court’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The court of appeals noted that this case implicated 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.

In Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015), the Supreme Court held that an officer may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop, but may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop absent reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining the individual. Here, the Ninth Circuit recognized for the first time, that Rodriguez “at least partially abrogated” its precedent in United States v. Turvin, 517 F.3d 1097 (9th Cir. 2008).

Turvin held that an officer did not transform a lawful traffic stop into an unlawful one when, without reasonable suspicion, he took a break from writing a traffic citation to ask the driver a question unrelated to the stop and obtain the driver’s consent to search his truck. Turvin concluded that because the circumstances surrounding the brief pause were reasonable, the extension was permissible. The court of appeals clarified that the Court in Rodriguez “squarely rejected” such a reasonableness standard for determining whether prolonging a traffic stop for reasons not justified by the initial purpose of the stop is lawful.

In this case, the magistrate judge concluded that the extended stop was permissible because it was “reasonable.” The district court then adopted the magistrate judge’s recommendation, and therefore his analysis, without comment or explanation. The court of appeals found that because the analysis was based on Turvin and disregarded Rodriguez, the district court’s approval of the duration of the stop was premised on legal error.

Applying Rodriguez, the court determined that a demand for the identification of Landeros, a passenger, was not part of the mission of the traffic stop. Indeed, the court stated, “[t]he identify of a passenger … will ordinarily have no relation to a driver’s safe operation of a vehicle.” The court held that the officers’ extension of the stop therefore violated the Fourth Amendment unless it was supported by independent reasonable suspicion.

The government contended that an extension of the traffic stop was supported by reasonable suspicion and necessary because Landeros’s own conduct prevented the officers from being able to determine whether he committed the offenses of underage drinking or a curfew violation. The court was not convinced by the government’s argument since Officer Baker stated on cross examination that Landeros did not look “underage.” Thus, the court maintained that the extension of the traffic stop to investigate possible underage drinking or a curfew violation was an unlawful seizure.

The government also raised an Arizona state which 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.” The court therefore stated that the question remaining was whether law enforcement could lawfully order Landeros to identify himself, absent reasonable suspicion that he had committed an offense.

The court held that an officer may not lawfully order a person to identify himself absent particularized suspicion that he engaged, is engaging, or is about to engage in criminal activity. Here, at the time the officers asked Landeros to identify himself, they had no reasonable suspicion that he committed an offense, and there was no justification for the extension of the detention to allow the officers to press the defendant further for his identity.

As such, the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision of the district court.

Read the full case: United States v. Landeros


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, Associate Attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

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