©2012 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, PATC Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute (www.llrmi.com)
On July 17, 2012, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Hill [i] which serves as an excellent review pertaining to the law regarding officers questioning drivers during traffic stops on matters unrelated to the reason for the stop. The facts of Hill, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
While driving on Route 74/76 toward Leland, North Carolina on March 17, 2009, Officer William Kozak of the Leland Police Department observed a green Chevrolet Tahoe repeatedly drift out of its lane. Pulling alongside the vehicle, Officer Kozak noticed that the driver was sitting very low in the seat and appeared to be falling asleep. He also observed that there was a passenger in the car who appeared to be asleep. Officer Kozak contacted a patrol officer, Officer Aaron Naughton, and requested that Officer Naughton pull the Tahoe over if it continued to drift out of its lane. Officer Naughton did so, and Officer Kozak approached the car to speak with the driver.
When Officer Kozak approached the driver’s side of the car, the driver, Hill, refused to look at the officer, instead staring straight ahead. Officer Kozak informed Hill that he had been stopped because he had repeatedly drifted into the left lane. Officer Kozak asked Hill for his license and registration and observed that Hill was extremely nervous. He described Hill as having a visibly pounding heart and hands that were shaking uncontrollably. At this point, Officer Kozak suspected that “his actions were beyond the scope of a normal traffic stop.” He asked Hill to step out of the vehicle. Hill refused, and Officer Kozak asked a second time. Hill again refused, then Officer Kozak asked again, opened the door of the vehicle, and told Hill to step out of the vehicle. At this point, Hill exited the vehicle.
Officer Kozak separately questioned Hill and his passenger, Nigel Hood. When questioned, Hill had a “broken speech pattern” and continually shifted his weight back and forth. When questioned about whether there were drugs in the vehicle, Hill looked directly at Officer Kozak and denied that he had marijuana, cocaine, or methamphetamine in the vehicle. When asked whether there was any heroin in the car, however, he dropped his head and looked at the ground, answering, “No, I don’t do heroin.” Hill and Hood gave conflicting stories about the reason for their trip. Hood informed Officer Kozak that they went to pick up a radiator and a fan belt, whereas Hill indicated that he had been picking up a muffler. There were no auto parts visible in the car.
Shortly thereafter, Officer Kozak called for assistance from the Brunswick County Canine Unit. The canine unit arrived between 30 and 45 minutes later, and a dog alerted the police to the presence of narcotics. A search of the vehicle revealed a ten-bag bundle containing 0.3 grams of heroin and a handgun. Hill also had $3,135 in cash on his person. At the time of his arrest, after being read his Miranda rights, Hill admitted to the officers that the drugs belonged to him and that Hood had “nothing to do with” them. [ii]
Hill was subsequently charged with federal drug and firearms offenses. He filed a motion to suppress and alleged that the traffic stop was unreasonably prolonged while the officer waited for the canine officer to arrive. The district court denied the motion to suppress. Hill was convicted by a jury and he appealed the denial of the motion to suppress.
The issue before the court was whether Hill was detained longer than reasonably necessary to diligently investigate the reason for the traffic stop. If he was unreasonably detained, he argued the evidence should be suppressed as the fruit of an unreasonable detention.
The court first noted four rules relevant to this issue. The four rules were as follows:
While a police officer conducts the normal activities associated with a traffic stop, such as “requesting a driver’s license and vehicle registration, running a computer check, and issuing a ticket,” the officer may ask questions or undertake additional actions that are not “solely and exclusively focused on the purpose of that detention.” United States v. Digiovanni, 650 F.3d 498, 507 (4th Cir. 2011) [iii]
If a police officer seeks to prolong a traffic stop to allow for investigation into a matter outside the scope of the initial stop, he must possess reasonable suspicion” of additional criminal activity. United States v. Digiovanni, 650 F.3d 498, 507 (4th Cir. 2011) [iv]
Officers may use their “training and expertise” to identify sets of factors which are “individually quite consistent with innocent travel” yet “taken together, produce a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. United States v. Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 336-37 (4th Cir. 2008) [v]
It is well established that a law enforcement officer is “objectively justified” in asking a person detained for a traffic violation to “get out of the car.” Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 40, 117 S. Ct. 417, 136 L. Ed. 2d 347 (1996) (citing Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111 n.6, 98 S. Ct. 330, 54 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1977) [vi]
The Fourth Circuit then applied the rules above to the facts of Hill’s case. First, the court noted that it was reasonable for the officer to have Hill exit his vehicle during the traffic stop. Next, the court reasoned that the questions that the officer asked Hill that were unrelated to the original purpose of the traffic stop “lasted only a few minutes and thus did not measurably extend the stop.” [vii]
The court also held that, by the time the officer called for a canine unit, the officer had sufficient reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify the continued detention. [viii] The court reasoned that this was because Hill acted in a manner consistent with criminal activity during the stop. They based this holding upon the following facts: (1) Hill shook uncontrollably when the officer questioned him; (2) Hill stared straight ahead without looking at the officer; (3) Hill initially, several times, refused the officer’s requests for him to exit the vehicle; (4) Hill spoke with a broken speech pattern (nervous); (5) Hill shifted his weight as he stood talking to the officer which appeared to be a manifestation of nervousness; (6) Hill looked at the ground when questioned about heroin; and (7) Hill and his passenger gave inconsistent accounts of regarding what type of auto part they had purchased and no auto parts were visible in the vehicle.
Hill argued that the officer did not possess sufficient reasonable suspicion to justify the continued detention and he based this argument on the Fourth Circuit’s holding in United States v. Digiovanni. [ix] However, the court distinguished Digiovanni’s case from Hill’s case in that in Digiovanni, the officer only described the defendant’s demeanor during the stop as that he “appeared to tremble slightly when handing over his license and registration.” [x] The court noted that in Hill’s case, the officer described extreme nervousness and the fact that the defendant gave an implausible story that was contradicted by his passenger.
As such, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress and held that the officer possessed sufficient reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop for a canine unit.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] No. 11-4556, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 14743 (4th Cir. Decided July 17, 2012)(Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 10
[iv] Id. at 10-11
[v] Id. at 11
[vii] Id. at 12
[ix] 650 F.3d 498 (4th Cir. 2011)
[x] Hill at 13 (citing Digiovanni, 650 F.3d at 512)