On November 8, 2012, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Coleman [i], which serves as an excellent review of traffic stop and vehicle search law. The facts of Coleman are as follows:
On July 31, 2010, Coleman was driving his motor home on Interstate 80 in Hall County, Nebraska. Nebraska State Patrol Trooper Jason Bauer observed two vehicles with Florida license plates traveling eastbound on Interstate 80 under the posted speed limit. Trooper Bauer began following the vehicles and observed the second vehicle, Coleman’s motor home, swerve. The passenger-side tires of the motor home twice crossed over the fog line at the shoulder of the highway. Trooper Bauer stopped Coleman for driving on the shoulder.
Trooper Bauer asked Coleman to sit with him in his patrol car while the officer wrote a warning citation and checked Coleman’s license status and criminal history. Trooper Bauer questioned Coleman about his travel plans and whether he had a criminal history, which Coleman denied. The state patrol dispatch was unable to check Coleman’s criminal history with only a name and date of birth so Trooper Bauer relayed Coleman’s social security number. Dispatch responded, and Trooper Bauer learned Coleman had an extensive criminal history, including drug, robbery, and weapons offenses. Trooper Bauer again asked Coleman if he had ever been arrested, and Coleman again said he had not. When Trooper Bauer questioned Coleman about drug use, Coleman admitted he used medically prescribed marijuana while in California a few months prior. Trooper Bauer inquired if Coleman had any medical marijuana with him. Coleman replied that he did in the front part of the motor home. Trooper Bauer then placed Coleman in the backseat of his patrol car while he entered the motor home.
Trooper Bauer entered the motor home through the passenger-side door where Coleman had exited the vehicle. Trooper Bauer conducted a sweep of the motor home to ensure it was unoccupied. In a large compartment under the bed, Trooper Bauer located a black weapons-type bag. Trooper Bauer opened the bag and discovered a high-point rifle and ammunition. Trooper Bauer confirmed with dispatch that Coleman was a convicted felon. Trooper Bauer then located marijuana in the front of the motor home. [ii]
Subsequently, Coleman was indicted for a federal firearms violation. He filed a motion to suppress the firearm which was denied. He then filed an appeal of the denial his motion to suppress to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The issues on appeal upon which we will focus are as follows: (1) whether probable cause existed to conduct a traffic stop of Coleman’s vehicle; (2) whether reasonable suspicion supported the extension or expansion of the scope of the stop; (3) whether the questioning during the traffic stop was custodial questioning that required Miranda warnings; and (4) whether the warrantless search of the motor home was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Issue One: Was there probable cause to support the traffic stop?
Regarding this issue, the court stated:
A traffic violation, no matter how minor, provides an officer with probable cause to stop the driver. See United States v. Jones, 275 F.3d 673, 680 (8th Cir. 2001). “An officer is justified in stopping a motorist when the officer ‘objectively has a reasonable basis for believing that the driver has breached a traffic law.'” United States v. Mallari, 334 F.3d 765, 766-67 (8th Cir. 2003) [iii]
The trooper testified that he stopped Coleman because he violated a Nebraska statute that prohibits driving on the shoulder of a highway. [iv] The trooper said that he observed Coleman swerve over the fog line onto the shoulder two times. Coleman argued that that did not violate the statute. The Eighth Circuit disagreed and stated that, while highest court in Nebraska has not decided this issue, there is sufficient case law to support the stop. Further, the court stated:
This Court should not expect state highway patrolmen to interpret the traffic laws with the subtlety and expertise of a criminal defense attorney.” United States v. Sanders, 196 F.3d 910, 913 (8th Cir. 1999).[v]
Issue Two: Did reasonable suspicion support the expansion of the scope of the traffic stop?
Regarding issue two, the court first noted:
A constitutionally permissible traffic stop can become unlawful, . . . ‘if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete’ its purpose.” United States v. Peralez, 526 F.3d 1115, 1119 (8th Cir. 2008) (quoting Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407, 125 S. Ct. 834, 160 L. Ed. 2d 842 (2005)). An officer may detain the occupants of a vehicle while performing routine tasks such as obtaining a driver’s license and the vehicle’s registration and inquiring about the occupants’ destination and purpose. See id. “[I]f the officer develops reasonable suspicion that other criminal activity is afoot, the officer may expand the scope of the encounter to address that suspicion.” Id. at 1120. [vi]
Coleman argued that when the trooper questioned him about drug use, he impermissibly expanded the scope of the stop without sufficient reasonable suspicion. The Eighth Circuit, however, disagreed. First, they noted that weaving over the fog line could be indicative of driving under the influence of drugs; as such, the question regarding drug use was related to the reason for the stop. Second, Coleman’s dishonesty regarding his criminal history reasonably raised the trooper’s suspicion and allowed him to ask questions to clarify Coleman’s response. Lastly, the court noted that even if no reasonable suspicion was present, the questions regarding drug use only took a “couple of minutes” and as such were a de minimus extension that did not intrude into Coleman’s Fourth Amendment rights. [vii]
As such, reasonable suspicion was present or in the alternative, any extra detention was de minimus and did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Issue Three: Did the trooper’s questions to Coleman amount to custodial questioning that required Mirandawarnings?
To this issue, the court first noted:
Although a motorist is technically seized during a traffic stop, Miranda warnings “are not required where the motorist is not subjected to the functional equivalent of a formal arrest.” United States v. Morse, 569 F.3d 882, 884 (8th Cir. 2009); [*12] see also Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 441, 104 S. Ct. 3138, 82 L. Ed. 2d 317 (1984) (holding Miranda warnings were not required where the defendant “failed to demonstrate . . . he was subjected to restraints comparable to those associated with a formal arrest”). [viii]
In Coleman’s case, the court observed that, at the time of the questioning, Coleman was seated in the front seat of the trooper’s car, he was not handcuffed, the tone of the questioning was conversational, and nothing the trooper said indicated that the detention was anything other than temporary. The court then held that nothing in these circumstances indicated that Coleman was under arrest or subject to restraints normally associated with formal arrest. Thus, no Miranda warnings were needed.
Issue Four: Was the warrantless search of the motor home reasonable under the Fourth Amendment?
To this issue, the court noted two important rules. First, the court noted:
Officers may search a vehicle without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe the vehicle contains contraband. See United States v. Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 800, 102 S. Ct. 2157, 72 L. Ed. 2d 572 (1982). This automobile exception applies equally to motor homes. See California v. Carney, 471 U.S. 386, 390-94, 105 S. Ct. 2066, 85 L. Ed. 2d 406 (1985). [ix]
Second, the court noted that:
If probable cause justifies the search of a lawfully stopped vehicle, it justifies the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search.” Ross, 456 U.S. at 825. [x]
In Coleman’s case, Coleman told the trooper that there was marijuana in his vehicle which provided probable cause for the trooper to search anywhere in the vehicle that could conceal marijuana. This included under the bed and in the bag where the gun was found.
Further, the court also stated that the trooper could justify this search as a protective sweep of the motor home prior to the search. The court stated:
Coleman argues the motor home was more like a residence than a vehicle, and as such, the sweep should have been limited to the space within Coleman’s immediate control. However, a motor home in transit on a public highway is being used as a vehicle and is therefore subject to a reduced expectation of privacy. See Carney, 471 U.S. at 392-93. In the context of a traffic stop, we have repeatedly held “officers may take such additional steps as are reasonably necessary to protect their personal safety and to maintain the status quo during the course of the stop.” Thomas, 249 F.3d at 729 (quoting United States v. Doffin, 791 F.2d 118, 120 (8th Cir. 1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted). The district court found that the space under the bed was large enough to hide a person, and the sweep justifiably could extend to this area for the officer’s protection from a possible hidden assailant. [xi]
Thus, under the protective sweep exception, it was reasonable for the officer to look under the bed where the gun case was found. Then, because the officer knew that Coleman was a convicted felon, when he found the gun case, it was reasonable for him to consider it contraband or evidence of crime.
As such, the court held the search was justified both by probable cause and as a protective sweep.
Therefore, the court upheld the denial of the motion to suppress on these issues.
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. 12-1400, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 23055 (8th Cir. November 8, 2012)
[ii] Id. at 1-3
[iii] Id. at 6
[iv] Id. (see Neb. Rev. Stat. § 60-6.142)
[v] Id. at 7
[vi] Id. at 9
[vii] Id. at 10
[viii] Id. at 11-12
[ix] Id. at 12-13
[x] Id. at 13
[xi] Id at 13-14