On October 16, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Simeon[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law pertaining to expanding the scope of a traffic stop and the automobile exception to the warrant requirement. The relevant facts of Simeon are as follows:
Simeon was riding in the passenger seat of a car rented in his name when Birmingham Police Officer William Harrington pulled the car over for speeding. Charles Jacks was driving the car. During the traffic stop, Harrington learned that only Simeon was on the rental agreement and discovered a warrant for Simeon’s arrest from Columbus, Georgia for a fraud charge. Harrington asked if Simeon had anything other than his wallet and phone in the car, and Simeon responded that he did not. After confirming that Georgia authorities wanted Simeon taken into custody, Harrington informed Jacks of the situation and asked him if Simeon had any luggage in the car. Jacks said that Simeon did in fact have luggage in the car, contradicting Simeon’s earlier statement. Harrington later testified that when he questioned Jacks about Simeon’s luggage, Jacks was shaking and speaking nervously and that he could see Jacks’ heart beating through his shirt. Harrington called in a K9 unit to perform a drug sniff. The dog positively alerted on the car, so Harrington searched the car and Simeon’s luggage. Harrington did not find any drugs, but he did find sixty-four credit cards and a credit card encoding device inside Simeon’s luggage.[ii]
Simeon was subsequently charged for federal fraud crimes. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence found the in the search arguing that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the motion, and he appealed the denial to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Simeon conceded the traffic stop and his arrest for the outstanding warrant were legal, but he argued that the search of his vehicle was illegal because (1) the officer expanded the scope of the stop and detention without sufficient reasonable suspicion, and (2) the officer needed a search warrant to search the vehicle and his bags because there were no exigent circumstances to justify the warrantless search.
Thus, the first issue addressed by the court was whether the police impermissibly detained his rental car and expanded the scope of the traffic stop by making inquiries to the passenger and conducting a canine sniff of the vehicle. Simeon contends that after the officer arrested him for the outstanding warrant, the officer was required to immediately release his rental vehicle and its contents to the passenger.
The court of appeals first examined the legal principles that apply to this issue and stated
A traffic stop may not last any longer than necessary to effectuate the stop unless there is an articulable suspicion of other illegal activity. See United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1277 (11th Cir. 2001). A dog sniff incident to a traffic stop is unlawful when the police extend the stop without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to conduct the dog sniff. See Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1615 (2015). We have described reasonable suspicion as the ability “to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” United States v. Boyce, 351 F.3d 1102, 1107 (11th Cir. 2003). To determine if reasonable suspicion exists we take a “totality of the circumstances” approach and recognize that facts and circumstances that may be consistent with innocent travel when considered in isolation can give rise to reasonable suspicion when taken together. Id. But reasonable suspicion is more than an “inchoate hunch”; officers must be able to articulate some “minimal, objective justification” to extend an investigatory stop. Id.[iii] [emphasis added]
The court then examined facts of the case that were relevant to the issue at hand. First, the court observed that Simeon was wanted for fraud. Second, the court noted that Simeon and the passenger gave conflicting answers regarding whether Simeon had any bags or property in the vehicle. Third, the officer, while questioning the passenger about luggage, observed the passenger appear visibly agitated and could see his heart beating. The court stated that these facts “could easily cause a reasonable officer to suspect that there was contraband in the vehicle. As such, the officer did not unreasonably prolong the stop, since reasonable suspicion was present. [Authors note: Likely, an additional basis to not release the car, but rather impound it, would be that it was a rental vehicle and only Simeon was listed on the rental agreement. Additional facts would be needed to determine whether or not the car could be released to the passenger and this issue was not discussed in the case.]
The court next addressed Simeon’s second issue of whether the search of the car violated the Fourth Amendment because exigent circumstances were not present to permit a warrantless search. Simeon argued that the officer needed to obtain a search warrant after the canine alerted on the vehicle.
The court of appeals described the relevant legal principle applicable to this issue as follows:
[T]he Supreme Court has recognized an “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement that “does not have a separate exigency requirement: If a car is readily mobile and probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, the Fourth Amendment . . . permits police to search the car without more.” Maryland v. Dyson, 527 U.S. 465, 467, 119 S. Ct. 2013, 2014 (1999).[iv] [emphasis added]
The court then examined facts that supported the officer’s belief that probable cause existed to search Simeon’s rental vehicle. While the alert from the trained narcotics canine is sufficient to provide probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of Simeon’s rental vehicle and the contents therein, viewing the totality of the circumstance there were additional facts that strengthen or further support probable cause. One additional reason was the fact that Simeon was wanted for fraud. The other reason was the conflicting stories of whether Simeon had luggage in the vehicle. As such, the court held that probable cause to search the car was present and the automobile exception to the warrant requirement authorized the warrantless search.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 17-14620 (11th Cir. Decided October 16, 2018 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-3
[iii] Id. at 4
[iv] Id. at 5