Seven minute detention for traffic stop was not unlawfully prolonged

People v. Esparza (Cal. Ct. App., Aug. 28, 2023, No. D080703) 2023 WL 6224964, as modified (Sept. 26, 2023)

Summary: Esparza was pulled over for a Vehicle Code violation, a detective who specializes in gang enforcement recognized him and two of his passengers as gang members.  The detective thought one of the passengers was likely to be armed and told the other officers they needed to search him. After the search of the passenger disclosed a loaded gun. The officers then searched Esparza and found another loaded weapon.

Esparza contests the constitutional validity of his detention and search, claiming (1) the officers lacked reasonable suspicion that he was armed and dangerous when they conducted his patdown, and (2) his detention was unreasonably prolonged because it lasted longer than necessary for the officers to issue him a citation for the Vehicle Code violation.  The Court of Appeal noted that the detention lasted only seven minutes, during which the officers acted consistent with reasonable concerns for officer safety. The totality of the circumstances known to the initial investigating officer justified those concerns. The Court affirmed.

Esparza’s detention and patdown search were lawful.

Esparza argued: (1) the officers lacked reasonable suspicion that he was armed and dangerous when they conducted his patdown,; (2) the detention lasted too long because the traffic stop went beyond what was necessary for the officers to issue him a citation for tinted windows.

Investigatory detention and patdown search for weapons

In Terry v. Ohio (1968) 392 U.S. 1 (Terry), the Supreme Court held that when a police officer has  reasonable suspicion that “criminal activity may be afoot and that the persons with whom he is dealing may be armed and presently dangerous,” an investigatory detention and patdown search for weapons is constitutionally permissible under the Fourth Amendment. Reasonable suspicion is less than probable cause (United States v. Arvizu (2002) 534 U.S. 266, 274. (Arvizu)), but is more than a mere “hunch,” and must be based on “specific reasonable inferences which [officers are] entitled to draw from the facts in light of [their] experience[s].” (Terry, at p. 27.) Whether reasonable suspicion exists depends on the totality of the circumstances. (United States v. Cortez (1981) 449 U.S. 411, 417. (Cortez).)

Standard of Review gives deference to any factual findings made at the preliminary hearing, and the Court of Appeals independently evaluates the legal questions of whether the detention and search were reasonable. (Blakes v. Superior Court (2021) 72 Cal.App.5th 904, 910.)

The totality of the circumstances demonstrates that searching Esparza for weapons was reasonable.

The traffic stop was legal since the tinted windows constituted a Vehicle Code violation. (See People v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County (1972) 7 Cal.3d 186, 200.)

Gang affiliation of one individual alone does not justify a stop and frisk. (People v. Hester (2004) 119 Cal.App.4th 376, 392.) The “ ‘high crime area’ ” justification for a detention can be easily abused (In re Tony C. (1978) 21 Cal.3d 888, 897.), as can an individual’s  proximity to someone suspected of criminal activity. (See Ybarra v. Illinois (1979) 444 U.S. 85, 91.) But when such factors are all stacked together, as was this case here, the analysis changes. Here, The finding of a gun on one passenger was an important factor in the officers’ decision to pat down Esparza. This factor surely gave rise to a reasonable inference that the other gang members in the car might be armed and dangerous.

Esparza’s detention was not unduly prolonged.

Esparza argued that the detention was unduly prolonged because it went beyond the officers’ only necessary tasks: to run his license and then issue him a citation for tinted windows. Here, a decision to wait for backup was reasonable in light of his justifiable safety concerns.

When a car is lawfully detained, “police officers may order the driver to get out of the vehicle without violating the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unreasonable searches and seizures.” (Pennsylvania v. Mimms (1977) 434 U.S. 106, 111, fn. 6.) Passengers are seized in traffic stops in the same manner as drivers and the threat posed to an officer by a passenger is “every bit as great as that of the driver” such that officers may therefore “order passengers to get out of the car pending completion of the stop.” (Maryland v. Wilson (1997) 519 U.S. 408, 414–415.) Pretextual stops are tolerated—so long as the lawful bounds that justify the stop are observed— because the subjective intent of officers is irrelevant in Fourth Amendment analysis. Investigations conducted by officers not directly related to the initial purpose of the stop “do not convert the encounter into something other than a lawful seizure, so long as the inquiries do not measurably extend the stop’s duration.” (Arizona v. Johnson (2009) 555 U.S. 323, 333.) A pretextual stop only ripens into an unlawful detention if it deviates too far from the proper legal justification, which is to “address the traffic violation that warranted the stop”—what the Court has called the “mission” of the stop—and “attend to related safety concerns.” (Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354. (Rodriguez).)

Esparza’s detention was not unreasonably extended. The stop was initiated lawfully and remained lawful throughout. Esparza’s motion to suppress evidence was properly denied, as was his subsequent section 995 motion based on the same argument.

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