On July 16, 2014, the Georgia Court of Appeals decided the State v. Allen et al.[i], which serves as instructive for Georgia peace officers regarding detentions during traffic stops for the purpose of obtaining consent or utilizing a canine to sniff a vehicle. The relevant facts of Allen, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On September 13, 2012, while stationed in the median of an interstate to monitor traffic, the officer observed a 2012 Nissan Altima vehicle cross from the center lane of travel into “the fast lane.” As the Altima passed the officer’s stationary position, the officer saw the driver “pointing his finger all in the passenger’s face.” Concerned that the driver was distracted, the officer decided to catch up with the Altima. As he did so, the officer saw the Altima “make the same lane infractions again”; the officer also saw that the driver was “still reaching over with his fingers, pointing in the passenger’s face.” The officer initiated the traffic stop.
The officer walked to the Altima and informed the two occupants, appellees Scott and Allen, that they were stopped because of lane infractions. The officer asked them whether they were having an argument. Scott answered no, and stated that he was just talking to Allen. The officer advised Scott that he would be writing him a courtesy warning for the lane infractions. The officer obtained from Scott his driver’s license and obtained from Allen a South Carolina identification card.
The officer perceived that Scott and Allen were nervous. Because of the lane infractions, the officer wanted to “see how [Scott] was on his feet” to “make sure he wasn’t intoxicated.” The officer asked Scott to exit the vehicle; Scott got out of the vehicle and walked to the location designated by the officer. The officer conducted a pat-down search of Scott; after finding no weapon, the officer “engaged in general conversation with [Scott]” while he wrote the courtesy warning.
But after writing the warning, the officer did not thereupon hand it (along with the identifications) to Scott, who was standing beside him. Instead, as the officer testified,
[O]nce I completed the warning I had dispatch check both of their driver’s license[s]. Mr. Allen’s was through South Carolina and Mr. Scott’s was through Georgia. While waiting on returns from GCIC to come back, waiting on dispatch I had asked Mr. Scott for consent to search his vehicle. Mr. Scott wouldn’t deny nor consent to a search.
The officer testified that Scott replied only that “you already got me stopped,” and “[s]o at that time I had Mr. Allen exit the vehicle also and once Mr. Allen exited the vehicle I had them both stand at the front of my patrol car and I retrieved my K-9 partner Kazan out of the rear of my vehicle.” When the officer walked the drug dog around the Altima, the dog showed a positive odor response. The officer put Kazan back into the patrol car, then began searching the Altima. While searching the interior of the vehicle, the officer received the requested GCIC information from dispatch; when the officer’s search reached the trunk of the car, he discovered the marijuana.
An audio-video recording of the traffic stop was played at the suppression hearing.
On cross-examination, the officer provided additional details. He testified that, when talking to Scott and Allen as they sat in the Altima, he had looked at the vehicle’s interior, but had seen neither marijuana nor any drug paraphernalia; and he had not detected the odor of marijuana. The officer stated that, when Scott complied with his directive to step outside the Altima, Scott continued to appear nervous, but showed “no signs of being intoxicated or impaired.” The officer had concluded, “[Scott] wasn’t intoxicated.” Additionally, the officer agreed that “the courtesy warning was completed at that time as we see in the video . . . when [he] contact[ed] dispatch”; that “[a]fter [he] completed the warning” he “ran the license[s] at that point”; and that the “written warning was completed prior to [his] running the GCIC to dispatch. [ii]
Allen and Scott filed a motion to suppress and argued that the drugs were found after the officer had unlawfully expanded the traffic stop. The trial court granted the motion and held that it was impermissible for the officer to initiate the driver’s license check after the officer had completed the warning citation, thus ending the purpose for the detention. The state appealed the grant of the motion to suppress.
At the outset, it is important to note that that the legal standard of review is that the court of appeals must construe the evidence most favorably to upholding the trial court’s decision and can only reverse the trial court if there is no evidence to support the trial court’s decision.
The court then discussed the general legal principals applicable in this case. The court stated:
As a general rule, an investigatory stop is not unreasonably prolonged by the time necessary to run a computer check. But it does not necessarily follow that an officer may initiate a computer check aftercompleting the investigation into the basis for the traffic stop. Further, a police officer may check “for outstanding warrants or criminal histories on the occupants of a vehicle at a valid traffic stop” based upon concerns for officer safety “as long as under the circumstances they do not unreasonably prolong the stop.” But “[o]nce the tasks related to the investigation of the traffic violation and processing of the traffic citation have been accomplished, an officer cannot continue to detain an individual without articulable suspicion.”
A seizure that is justified solely by the interest in issuing a warning ticket to the driver can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time to complete that mission. The officer’s purpose in an ordinary traffic stop is to enforce the laws of the roadway, and ordinarily to investigate the manner of driving with the intent to issue a citation or warning. Once the purpose of that stop has been fulfilled, the continued detention of the car and the occupants amounts to a second detention. [iii] [internal citations omitted]
In applying the facts of this case to the rules above, with the requirement that the court construe the evidence most favorably to the trial court’s decision, the court first noted that the officer initiated the computer driver’s license checks after he completed the warning citation, which was the purpose of stop. The court considered the driver’s license (and warrant checks) that occurred after the warning citation was already completed a “continued detention.” Particularly, the court stated:
The continued detention – even if a short one – beyond the conclusion of the investigation that warranted the traffic stop in the first place was therefore unreasonable. Because the officer was not authorized to initiate a different investigation during that unlawful detention, it cannot be said that he was then engaged in the lawful discharge of his duties; “officer safety,” thus, cannot serve as justification for the computer check or for the unlawful detention. Notably, the officer did not testify, nor did the prosecutor argue before the trial court, that officer safety played any role in the computer check, the prolonged detention, or the search for drugs in the Altima. [iv]
The court also emphasized that, after initiating the computer check, the video of the incident shows that the officer did nothing that related to the lane infractions but rather pursued consent to search and a canine sniff.
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the motion to suppress.
Especially in Georgia, on a normal traffic stop (one that does not involve a DUI arrest, for example) officers should initiate the GCIC/NCIC (driver’s license and warrant checks) at some point prior to completing the citation. This should be conducted as part of the officer’s traffic investigation to avoid a court from concluding it simply prolonged a traffic investigation that was already completed.
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] A14A0297 (Ga. App. 2014)