On June 12, 2013, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Davis v. State [i] which is instructive regarding the legality of officers questioning passengers of automobiles which have been stopped for traffic violations. The facts of Davis are as follows:
On January 24, 2012, Davis was a passenger in a vehicle traveling on I-75 in Henry County when a police officer stopped the vehicle for failure to maintain lane. On approaching the vehicle, the officer detected the odor of alcohol, and he asked the driver to exit the vehicle to make sure that she was not impaired. After observing that the driver appeared to be “steady on her feet,” the officer decided only to issue a warning citation for failure to maintain lane. The officer then, following normal procedure, ran the driver’s license information through dispatch to make sure that the license was valid and that the driver did not have any outstanding warrants.
While the officer waited to hear back from dispatch, he spoke with the two passengers in the vehicle to obtain their identification information and run a warrant search on each of them as well. Davis, the front passenger, gave his name when asked, but the rear passenger proved to be less cooperative. And after the rear passenger refused to give his information, the officer walked around the vehicle, opened the car door to make contact with the passenger, and immediately detected the smell of burnt marijuana. At that moment, the return from dispatch came over the radio. Thereafter, and incidental to his detection of the odor of marijuana, the officer performed a search of the car and discovered less than one ounce of unburnt marijuana, which Davis later admitted belonged to him.
Davis was subsequently charged with possession of a controlled substance… [ii]
Davis filed a motion to suppress and argued that the officer had already completed the purpose of the stop at the time in which he smelled the marijuana. As such, Davis contended that the officer unreasonably prolonged the stop prior to smelling the marijuana, therefore he exceeded the permissible scope of the stop. The trial court concluded that the officer smelled the marijuana prior to issuing the citation and prior to receiving the dispatch returns. As such, the stop was not unreasonably prolonged at the time the officer smelled the marijuana. Therefore, the trial court denied the motion to suppress.
Davis appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
At the outset, the court of appeals noted that:
In the course of a traffic stop, both the driver and any passengers are considered “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and both the driver and the passenger are entitled to the protections of that amendment. In this regard, an officer’s actions at a valid traffic stop “must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the stop in the first place, and limited in duration to the time reasonably necessary to accomplish the purpose of that stop.” [iii]
The court also noted that they consider two important factors to determine whether a stop has been impermissibly extended under the Fourth Amendment. The court stated:
[W]e consider two elements in determining whether a stop has been impermissibly extended: (1) the actions taken must be “reasonably related in scope” to the initial justification for the stop and (2) they must not unreasonably prolong the detention. [iv]
The court then set out to examine each of the factors above. As to the first factor of whether the actions taken were reasonably related in scope to the initial reason for the stop, the court stated:
Here, the officer’s actions were reasonably related to the circumstances of the traffic stop. The officer questioned the passengers in order to obtain their information to run a warrant search, which is exactly the type of minimally intrusive measure that is acceptable during a traffic stop. [v]
The court then set out to determine the second factor in the above analysis, particularly whether the officer unreasonably prolonged the detention in questioning Davis and the other passenger. In examining this issue, the court stated:
[A] stop is not unreasonably prolonged so long as it is “limited in duration to the time reasonably necessary to accomplish” its purpose. And the time reasonably necessary to accomplish the purpose of a traffic stop “includes the time necessary to verify the driver’s license, insurance, registration, and to complete any paperwork connected with the citation or a written warning.” It also includes the time necessary to “run a computer check to determine whether there are any outstanding arrest warrants for the driver or the passengers.” [vi]
In reviewing cases such as this, the court of appeals noted that they are bound by the factual findings of the trial court unless clearly erroneous. Since the trial court found that the officer received the warrant information returns after questioning the passengers and smelling the odor of marijuana, the stop was not unreasonably prolonged because it occurred during the time necessary to complete the warrant check.
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
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] A13A0491, 2013 Ga. App. LEXIS 481
[ii] Id. at 1-2
[iii] Id. at 4-5
[iv] Id. at 5 (citing Chang v. State, 270 Ga. App. 814 (608 SE 2d 283)(2004))
[v] Id. at 6 (see, e.g., Chang, 270 Ga. App. 815-816 (holding that it is reasonable in the interest of officer safety to allow an officer at a traffic stop to obtain identification information from drivers and passengers in order to run a computer check for outstanding warrants); State v. Williams, 264 Ga. App. 199, 203 (590 SE2d 151) (2003) (“[T]hese checks are minimally intrusive safety measures that do not unreasonably expand the scope of a valid traffic stop … as long as under the circumstances they do not unreasonably prolong the stop.” (punctuation omitted)).
[vi] Id. at 6-7 (Proctor v. State, 298 Ga. App. 388, 391 (2) (680 SE2d 493) (2009); Id.; see also Young v. State, 310 Ga. App. 270, 272-73 (712 SE2d 652) (2011))