©2010 Brian S. Batterton, Attorney, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute, (llrmi.com), 8th Cir. United States v. Harrison, Decided May 26, 2010.      The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided the United States v. Harrisoni, which serves as an excellent review of the rules that relate to the questioning of vehicle occupants during a traffic stop.

The facts of Harrison are as follows:

Harrison was a backseat passenger in a car that was stopped on the night of November 2, 2006, because a license plate light was out. Marcos Villegas was driving, Ronisha McBride was the front passenger, and Lamar Watson was in the back with Harrison. Villegas pulled over to the highway shoulder. To avoid being hit by traffic, New York State Trooper Joseph Krywalski approached the passenger side, asked for the driver’s license and registration, and ordered Villegas to step around to the back. As Villegas complied, Krywalski recognized him from two prior traffic stops in which Krywalski found drugs in Villegas’s car (marijuana on the first stop, marijuana and cocaine on the second).

Standing at the back of the car, Krywalski asked Villegas where he was going, why, and with whom. Villegas responded that they were all returning to Utica from a wedding rehearsal in Rochester. Krywalski then went back to the three passengers to see if they would corroborate Villegas’s account. McBride said that she and Villegas had traveled alone to Rochester, visited friends, picked up Harrison and Watson, and were returning together to Utica; nothing special took them to Rochester.

Krywalski queried Villegas again, who stuck to his story, and refused consent to search the vehicle. As they spoke (two to three minutes after the stop began), Trooper Timothy Ryan arrived at the scene. Two to three minutes after that, Ryan shined his flashlight into the car and spotted a marijuana cigarette on the floor next to McBride’s foot. Krywalski arrested Villegas and McBride, ordered Watson and Harrison out of the car, and found a gun inside the center console. Krywalski directed the arrest of Harrison and Watson.

Everyone went to the police station. There, Krywalski saw Harrison shake his right leg until a bag of crack fell out of his pants.

Harrison was charged in federal court with possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base (crack), in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A). The district court denied Harrison’s pre-trial motion to suppress the crack as the result of an unlawful stop; the jury convicted; and the district court sentenced him to 240 months’ imprisonment.ii

Harrison appealed the denial his motion to suppress to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  He admitted that the original traffic stop was lawful; however, he argued that the questions unrelated to the purpose of the stop, which was a  tag light violation, unreasonably prolonged the stop such that it became an unlawful detention.  As such, he argued the drugs seized as a result of the unlawful detention should be suppressed.

The court then noted four rules that pertain to detentions and questioning during traffic stops.  The rules are as follows:

    • [E]ven a seizure that is lawful at its inception can violate the Fourth Amendment if its manner of execution unreasonably Infringes interests protected by the Constitution.iii


    • As applied to a traffic stop, [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 reasonably required to complete that mission.iv


    • [A]n officer’s inquiries into matters unrelated to the justification for the traffic stop . . . do not convert the encounter into something other than a lawful seizure, so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop.v


  • When a traffic stop is supported by probable cause, the occupants of the car have no right to be released the instant the steps to check license, registration, and outstanding warrants, and to write a ticket, had been completed. . . [T]he fourth amendment does not require the release of a person arrested on probable cause at the earliest moment that step can be accomplished. What the Constitution requires is that the entire process remain reasonable.vi

Since Harrison conceded that the initial traffic stop was lawful, the only issue for the court to consider was whether Trooper Krywalski’s questioning of the driver and passengers on matters unrelated to the purpose of the stop measurably extended the duration of the stop such as to render the stop unconstitutional.

Facts the court considered relevant to this issue were that the trooper had all the information he needed to issue the traffic citation before he approached the vehicle passengers to attempt to verify the driver’s story.  Also relevant was the fact that, up until the time of the arrest, the traffic stop had only lasted approximately 5-6 minutes; the unrelated questions were included in that short, 5-6 minute period of time.

The Second Circuit then examined case law from other federal circuits relating to reasonable periods of time for traffic stops.  The court first noted a case from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals where the court held that a 14-minute period of questioning was not unlawful because “officers do not need reasonable suspicion to ask questions unrelated to the purpose of an initially lawful stop [where the questioning] did not unreasonably prolong the duration of the stop.”vii  Additionally, the court noted a case from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals which stated:

Where at its inception a traffic stop is a valid one for a violation of the law, we doubt that a resultant seizure of no more than seventeen minutes can ever be unconstitutional on account of its duration: the detention is too short … Even if seventeen minutes is some minutes longer than the norm, we question whether the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable seizures is concerned with such trifling amounts of time, when the seizure was caused at the outset by an apparent violation of the law. Of trifles the law does not concern itself.viii

Since the court found that periods of time longer than 5-6 minutes have been held lawful detentions, the court held that Trooper Krywalski’s additional questioning of the vehicle occupants did not prolong the stop so as to render it unconstitutional.  As such, the denial of the motion to suppress was affirmed.

Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal advisor regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.


i No. 09-2907-cr, 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 10694 (2nd Cir. Decided May 26, 2010)

ii Id. at 2-3

iii Id. at 5 (quoting Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407, (2005))

iv Id. (quoting Caballes, 543 U.S. at  407)

v Id. (quoting Arizona v. Johnson, 129 S. Ct. 781, 788, (2009))

vi Id. (quoting United States v. Childs, 277 F.3d 947, 953-54 (7th Cir. 2002) (in banc))

vii Id. at 6 (quoting United States v. Turvin, 517 F.3d 1097, 1103-04 (9th Cir. 2008))

viii Id. at 6-7 (quoting United States v. Hernandez, 418 F.3d 1206, 1212 n.7 (11th Cir. 2005))

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