Detention for traffic stop is unlawfully prolonged once officer determines there is no violation

People v. Suggs (Cal. Ct. App., July 31, 2023, No. C096555) 2023 WL 4861699

Summary: The Court of Appeal held that traffic stop was unlawfully prolonged when police officer saw temporary registration documents in window, realized defendant had not committed Vehicle Code violation that was purpose of stop, and then made inquiries aimed at finding evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing. Suggs appealed  from a judgment following entry of a plea of no contest to misdemeanor possession of a concealed firearm after the trial court denied his motion to suppress evidence of the firearm and methamphetamine found in his vehicle. On appeal, Suggs argued the detention that preceded the search of his vehicle was unlawful under the Fourth Amendment.

Facts: Sacramento Police Officer Owen Anstess saw defendant driving a car that displayed only paper plates in violation of Vehicle Code section 5200 that requires a vehicle to attach license plates to both the front and back of the vehicle.  Officer Anstess initiated a traffic stop of Suggs because had seen the paperwork displayed in the window as required by law.

When Officer Anstess walked up to the vehicle to speak with defendant, he saw temporary registration documents attached to the darkly tinted rear window. Anstess testified that the display of these documents satisfied the legal requirement for vehicles with paper license plates. After seeing the temporary registration documents, Officer Anstess questioned Suggs about the purchase of the vehicle, and questioned where Suggs and his passenger were they were headed, and asked Suggs if he had identification on him. Suggs  provided his driver’s license to Officer Anstess.

Officer Anstess asked defendant if he could search his vehicle, and defendant declined because he was “just trying to get on [his] way.” Officer Anstess went back to his patrol vehicle then returned to Suggs, vehicle and informed defendant and his passenger that they both had suspended licenses, the passenger was on probation for “possession of firearms stuff and a couple other things,” and he was going to conduct a probation search. During the probation search, Officer Anstess discovered a concealed firearm and ammunition in a satchel on the floor behind defendant’s seat that was within the passenger’s reach. Based on that discovery, Officer Anstess searched the entire vehicle and found a scale and a cigarette box holding 30 pills of a controlled substance in a compartment near the steering wheel.

The People charged Suggs with possession of a concealed firearm (Pen. Code, § 25400, subd. (a)(1); count one), possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell (Health & Saf. Code, § 11378; count two), and possession of methamphetamine while armed with a firearm (Health & Saf. Code, § 11370.1, subd. (a); count three). Suggs moved to suppress the firearm and methamphetamine found in his vehicle. The  trial court found the passenger voluntarily provided his identification, the warrant checks of the passenger and defendant were simultaneous, and warrant checks are a permissible part of traffic stops as long as they “d[o] not unduly prolong the traffic investigation.” The trial court concluded the stop was lawful.

Denial of motion to suppress

Defendant contends the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress, because the detention was unlawfully prolonged. Suggs claimed  that once Officer Anstess noticed the proper documentation attached to his vehicle’s rear window and thus learned that the reason he had stopped defendant was invalid, any further detention was unlawful. The Court of Appeal held  the detention became unlawful when (1) the purpose of the stop completely dissipated (when the officer saw the documents in the window and thus realized that Suggs had not committed the Vehicle Code violation that was the purpose of the stop), and (2) the officer then made inquiries aimed at finding evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.

Unlawful prolonging of traffic stop

A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation.” (Rodriguez v. United States (2015) 575 U.S. 348, 354.) The “tolerable duration [of the traffic stop] is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop.”  “Beyond determining whether to is officer’s mission includes ‘ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop.’  Usual  inquiries involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. Such checks are included in the scope of an officer’s mission in conducting a traffic stop because they “serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.”  Further, to detect “ ‘evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing’ ” an officer also “may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop.” (Ibid.) But “not … in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.”

Officer Anstess saw the temporary registration documents when he walked up to the car to speak with Suggs and would not have initiated the stop at all if he had seen the temporary registration. At that point his initial reasonable suspicion of a Vehicle Code violation was completely dispelled and he had no basis for writing a citation. Once  Officer Anstess saw the temporary registration documents in the window, he was not required to simply walk away. He  was permitted to approach the car and explain to defendant why he stopped him. (United States v. McSwain (10th Cir. 1994) 29 F.3d 558, 561-562.)

But, he  was not permitted to prolong the stop by conducting inquiries aimed at finding evidence of criminal wrongdoing separate and apart from the perceived violation. Because Officer Anstess did prolong the stop after he had discovered that he had no basis for writing a citation based on any observation he had made up until that time, Officer Anstess’s seizure of defendant became unlawful at that moment, and a subsequent check for outstanding warrants did not cure the constitutional infirmity. The trial court erred in failing to appreciate the constitutional significance of Officer Anstess’s inquiries unrelated to the purpose of the stop, particularly given the officer’s acknowledgment that he became aware upon approaching the vehicle that there was no violation.

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