Traffic stop resulting in recovery of a gun and drugs was not unduly prolonged

People v Felix, 2024 WL 979674 (Cal.App. 2 Dist.)

Summary: Felix was arrested in Utah after being stopped for a traffic violation. He consented to a search of his car which resulted in the recovery of a handgun, ammunition and over five kilograms of methamphetamine. While in custody in Utah on drug charges, Felix became a suspect in two murders that occurred in Southern California. After his return to, California, Felix invoked his right to counsel while being interviewed by the detectives investigating one of the murders. Felix was placed in a cell with an undercover detective to whom he made incriminating statements about both murders. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence recovered during the Utah traffic stop and admitted, over his objection, his incriminating statements made to the undercover agent. Felix was found  guilty of two counts of first degree murder.

On appeal, Felix contends the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress the evidence recovered from the warrantless search of his car and in admitting his statements to the undercover agent because he had previously invoked his right to counsel while being interviewed by detectives. The Court of Appeal  affirmed the judgment of conviction.

The Denial of  Motion to Suppress

Felix argued that the court erred in denying his motion to suppress because the traffic stop was unreasonably prolonged in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, and his consent to the warrantless search of the car was invalid as a product of his wrongful detention.

A reviewing court defers to the trial court’s factual findings, express or implied, where supported by substantial evidence. In determining whether the search or seizure was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, a reviewing court exercises it’s  independent judgment. (People v. Redd (2010) 48 Cal.4th 691, 719.)

The trial court found the prosecutor had proven a lawful detention for the traffic violation and that Sergeant Taylor acted diligently in conducting his investigation. The detention was not unduly prolonged, and Felix gave voluntary consent to the search and free from coercion. The Court of Appeal concluded that substantial evidence supported those findings and Felix’s Fourth Amendment rights were not violated.

A “seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation.” (Rodriguez v. United States (2015) 575 U.S. 348, 354 (Rodriguez); Arizona v. Johnson (2009) 555 U.S. 323, 327, 333 [police may lawfully detain a vehicle and its occupants pending investigation of possible traffic violation].)

The first six minutes of Felix’s detention consisted of Sergeant Taylor explaining to defendant why he had pulled him over, requesting identification and registration and asking where defendant was headed, all of which qualify as the type of ordinary inquiries an officer is allowed to conduct during a traffic stop.

Sergeant Taylor gave the radio dispatcher the information he obtained from defendant to run a records check and also requested that a Spanish-speaking officer be sent to the scene. While awaiting a response from the dispatcher, Sergeant Taylor continued to ask questions relevant to writing a citation. He also asked questions aimed at dispelling the reasonable suspicions raised by defendant’s confusing answers for why he was in Utah and where he was headed, including asking whether defendant was transporting anything illegal.

The questions were permissible and did not unlawfully extend the duration of defendant’s detention as they occurred while Sergeant Taylor was awaiting a response on the records check. “ ‘Questioning during the routine traffic stop on a subject unrelated to the purpose of the stop is not itself a Fourth Amendment violation. Mere questioning is neither a search nor a seizure. [Citations.] While the traffic detainee is under no obligation to answer unrelated questions, the Constitution does not prohibit law enforcement officers from asking.’ ” (People v. Gallardo (2005) 130 Cal.App.4th 234, 239; Arizona v. Johnson, supra, 555 U.S. at p. 333 [“An officer’s inquiries into matters unrelated to the justification for the traffic stop … do not convert the encounter into something other than a lawful seizure, so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop.” (Citation omitted.)].)

There is no outside time limit for traffic violation detentions

 “[T]he circumstances of each traffic detention are unique” and “the reasonableness of each detention period must be judged on its particular circumstances.” (Williams v. Superior Court (1985) 168 Cal.App.3d 349, 358.)

Felix was a foreign national driving a car that did not belong to him. Sergeant Taylor reasonably took a few minutes to repeat some of his questions to Felix  in the presence of the Spanish-speaking officer, who had only just arrived, in order to confirm that he had properly understood defendant’s responses.

It was not illegal for Sergeant Taylor to request consent from defendant. A separate reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing is not required to ask for consent to search during the course of a traffic stop. (Tully, supra, 54 Cal.4th at p. 982, 145 Cal.Rptr.3d 146, 282 P.3d 173.)

Nothing that occurred during the five to six minutes that elapsed after the dispatcher’s initial response transformed the detention into an unlawful one. Felix’s detention was lawful and not unduly prolonged, we reject defendant’s contention his consent was invalid as the product of an unlawful detention. The record demonstrates defendant’s consent to search was given voluntarily during the course of a lawful traffic stop and “not the result of duress or coercion, express or implied.” (Schneckloth v. Bustamonte (1973) 412 U.S. 218, 248, 93 S.Ct. 2041, 36 L.Ed.2d 854.)

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