case law update

Possession of Motorist’s License Alone Does Not Constitute Seizure

A driver of a disabled vehicle was not “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment where an officer asked for and received possession of the driver’s license, the Eleventh Circuit recently held. 

On March 31, 2014, Alabama State Trooper Brandon Christen was on patrol when he observed a vehicle on the shoulder of the interstate, with its flashers on. Christen pulled over to assist the driver, Julio Aponte, and two passengers. When Christen asked what the problem was, the front-seat passenger said the vehicle had a flat tire and that he was on the phone with AAA. Christen observed Aponte trembling, and he asked the vehicle occupants for identification. Aponte and his passengers cooperated.

Christen then asked Aponte “in an everyday, conversational tone if he would ‘mind having a seat’ in the patrol car.” Aponte exited the vehicle without objection, walked to the patrol car and sat in the front-passenger seat. The passenger door remained unlocked at all times.

In the patrol car, Christen checked the three licenses and engaged Aponte in conversation about his travel plans. During that conversation, Christen observed that Aponte was exhibiting extreme nervousness, which apparently became severe as Aponte had to leave the patrol car to vomit. Christen then called for backup.

Another officer arrived on the scene and running the licenses of Aponte’s two passengers revealed those passengers had prior arrests for trafficking heroin. Christen then returned Aponte’s license and asked for and obtained Aponte’s permission to search the vehicle. That search revealed three plastic bags of what Aponte identified as heroin. Aponte and his passengers were arrested and subsequently charged with intent to distribute heroin.

The district court denied Aponte’s motion to suppress the heroin and Aponte was convicted. Aponte then appealed the motion to suppress denial to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.

On appeal, Aponte argued the heroin was fruit of the poisonous tree arising from his unlawful seizure. As there was no dispute that the encounter between Christen and Aponte began consensually, the appeals court examined the matter for whether, in view of the totality of the circumstances, the consensual encounter became brief seizure or investigator detention and, if so, when.

Aponte primarily argued he was seized when Christen asked for and retained his driver’s license and asked him to sit in the patrol car. The appeals court acknowledged precedent that the driver of a working vehicle would not have felt free to terminate an encounter with an officer who possessed the driver’s license, because had the person tried to drive away he could have been arrested for driving without a license. But Aponte’s matter was different, the court held.

The Eleventh Circuit found Aponte’s situation more similar to a prior case in which a defendant had already parked his car at his apartment and exited the vehicle for the evening. In that prior case, the court held that law enforcement’s retention of the defendant’s license did not preclude him from terminating the encounter by going into his apartment.

Applying its precedent to Aponte’s case, the court held that a reasonable person in Aponte’s situation would have felt free to end the encounter without his license, remain in (or return to) his vehicle, and wait for AAA assistance, as he would have done regardless of whether his driver’s license was temporarily retained. The court further found that Aponte was free to refuse Christen’s request to sit in the patrol car.

On those findings, and dismissing Aponte’s other arguments, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Aponte’s motion to suppress the heroin evidence, and it affirmed Aponte’s conviction.

Read the full case: U.S. v. Aponte


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

Tags: Fourth Amendment, fourth amendment right


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