Unlawfully prolonged traffic stop violates Fourth Amendment
People v. Ayon (Cal. Ct. App., July 6, 2022, No. H047360) 2022 WL 2447902, at *1
Summary: Police saw Ayon commit two minor traffic violations, stopped him in his car and detained him until a narcotics dog arrived. After the dog alerted to the presence of drugs, the police searched the car, and they found cocaine, methamphetamine, currency, and a scale. The trial court denied Ayon’s motion to suppress the fruits of the search, and he pleaded no contest to five drug-related counts.
Ayon appeals from the denial of the motion to suppress. Ayon contends the police unlawfully prolonged the duration of the stop in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.
The traffic stop was actually part of a preexisting drug investigation, and the police used the traffic infractions as pretext for the stop. While that fact does not by itself render the search unconstitutional, based on the evidence in the record, the police unlawfully prolonged the traffic stop.
Legal Principles governing traffic stops and seizure
“A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation.” (Rodriguez v. U.S. (2015) 575 U.S. 348, 354 (Rodriguez).) A traffic stop begins once the vehicle is pulled over for investigation of the traffic violation. (People v. McDaniel (2021) 12 Cal.5th 97, 130.)
Because the traffic violation is the purpose of the stop, the stop “may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.’” (Rodriguez, supra, 575 U.S. at p. 354.) “[T]he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop, and attend to related safety concerns.” “A police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures. A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, ‘become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission’ of issuing a ticket for the violation. “There is no set time limit for a permissible investigative stop; the question is whether the police diligently pursued a means of investigation reasonably designed to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly.” (People v. Russell (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 96, 102 (Russell).) “The standard of appellate review of a trial court’s ruling on a motion to suppress is well established. A reviewing 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 exercise our independent judgment.
To satisfy the substantial evidence standard, the evidence supporting the trial court’s findings must be “reasonable, credible, and of solid value.” (People v. Elder (2017) 11 Cal.App.5th 123, 130 (Elder).)
The Police Unlawfully Prolonged the Stop
At the hearing, the prosecution took the position that probable cause for the car search arose during the sniff by the narcotics dog. It is well-established that an alert by a narcotics dog gives rise to probable cause for a vehicle search. (Florida v. Harris (2013) 568 U.S. 237, 248.) Accordingly, the relevant time frame started from the point at which the car was first pulled over and ended once the dog alerted to the presence of drugs in the car. The issue is whether police diligently pursued their investigation of the traffic infractions during that time. The police did not.
After stopping Ayon and looking into his car with flashlights, the police approached him, collected his driver’s license and registration, and called the information into the police radio for a records check. This took two minutes and 30 seconds. Officer Williams testified that a radio check of a driver’s record typically takes about three to five minutes. In this case, the police radio dispatcher responded to the records request at three minutes and 32 seconds into the stop. Ayon’s driver license was valid, there were no “wants” for him, and there is no evidence that anything transmitted by the dispatcher would have justified further investigation.
At no point, however, did any officer begin writing a traffic citation. The record shows that more than 18 minutes had elapsed from the start of the stop before police had established probable cause to search the vehicle.
The police failed to diligently address the traffic infractions during the stop. They initially conducted the stop in standard fashion by taking Ayon’s documents and requesting a records check over the police radio, but that portion of the investigation was completed within the first three and a half minutes of the stop.
Pretextual traffic stops do not generally violate the Fourth Amendment
As a general matter, pretextual traffic stops do not violate the Fourth Amendment. The police may use a minor traffic infraction as a justification for stopping a vehicle, even if the traffic infraction is not the actual motivation from the stop. This doctrine follows from the general rule that an officer’s subjective intent is irrelevant.
The existence of a preexisting drug investigation is relevant here. In deciding whether a warrantless search or stop is objectively reasonable, we look to the “facts known to the officer.” (Adams v. Williams (1972) 407 U.S. 143, 146; People v. Troyer (2011) 51 Cal.4th 599, 605.) Officers requested a narcotics dog before conducting any purported sobriety checks, and the dog handler admitted he had been informed his presence would be required before the stop had even occurred.
The fact of the preexisting drug investigation explains why police prolonged the stop until the narcotics dog arrived. The police failed to diligently pursue an investigation of the traffic infraction and instead unlawfully prolonged the stop.
The judgment wasreversed, the conviction vacated, and the matter remanded. On remand, the trial court was ordered vacate its order denying Ayon’s motion to suppress the evidence seized in the car search and the court shall enter a new order granting that motion.
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