On November 20, 2019, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Cheeks[i], in which the court examined whether an officer had sufficient reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle, and whether the officer impermissibly expanded the scope of the traffic stop. The relevant facts of Cheeks, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Officer Danny Turner of the Heflin, Alabama Police Department testified that on April 6, 2017, while on patrol on the westbound side of I-20, he saw Cheeks, on two separate occasions, make a lane change where his turn signal came on but turned off before he transitioned from one lane to the other. On that basis, Officer Turner initiated a traffic stop. He approached the passenger side of the vehicle, rather than the driver side, in the interest of safety, and saw a female passenger in the front seat. Officer Turner asked Cheeks, who was driving, for his license, which Cheeks gave him. While he was talking to Cheeks, Officer Turner smelled the distinct “odor of burnt marijuana emitting from the passenger area of the compartment.” He then started looking around the vehicle and saw marijuana residue on the inside handle area of the passenger side door. Officer Turner then returned to his patrol car where he ran Cheeks’s criminal history check, which revealed that Cheeks “had a criminal history for previous drug offenses.”
Officer Turner then returned to Cheeks’s vehicle and told him that he would give him a written warning for the improper lane change and asked him to come back to the patrol car while Officer Turner wrote the warning. Cheeks stepped out of the car. Officer Turner observed that the passenger looked nervous, which he thought was strange because she would not receive a ticket for the traffic violation.
Officer Turner asked for her name and learned that her last name was Barclay. He asked for her driver’s license, which she gave to him. While Barclay was looking for her license, Officer Turner asked her about what she and Cheeks had been doing that day. She said that they had gone somewhere in Georgia the day before to see friends, but she could not tell him the specific place in Georgia and did not disclose the names of the friends. According to Barclay, she and Cheeks had spent the night in Georgia and were now returning home. Officer Turner then returned to his patrol car with Cheeks and began asking Cheeks about the couple’s travel plans. Cheeks said that they had recently left the Talladega or St. Clair area, had gone to Tallapoosa, Georgia, “[p]layed some scratch offs,” and were now on their way home. Cheeks also said that he and Barclay did not know anyone in Georgia. At this point Office Turner also learned that the car did not belong to either Cheeks or Barclay.
Officer Turner testified that at that point, he suspected drug activity based on the fact that the vehicle did not belong to either Cheeks or Barclay, the odor of burnt marijuana, the marijuana residue, Barclay’s nervous behavior, and the conflicting information he was given regarding travel plans. Officer Turner then asked Cheeks if he could search the vehicle, and Cheeks said, according to Officer Turner, “yes or yeah.” Officer Turner then leaned between the two front seats of the car and found on the rear floorboard a clear plastic container containing what he recognized immediately as methamphetamine. Officer Turner placed Cheeks under arrest and gave Cheeks his Miranda warnings. Cheeks then admitted that the methamphetamine was his and explained that Barclay had nothing to do with it.
On cross-examination, Officer Turner admitted that had the improper lane change been the only conduct at issue, the stop would have been shorter, but the marijuana odor and residue caused him to extend the stop. He also stated that he did not use the narcotics detection dog that was with him, take pictures of the marijuana residue in the car, or find any marijuana-related paraphernalia in the car. Officer Turner also explained that he understood Alabama law to require that a driver, when making a lane change, signal for 100 feet prior to making the lane change and continuously throughout the lane change.”[ii]
Cheeks filed a motion to suppress and the district court denied the motion. He ultimately entered a guilty plea and later appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
There were two issues on appeal. The first issue was whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop Cheeks based on failing to signal his lane change through the completion of the lane change. The court first noted that the traffic stops are seizures that must be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. For a traffic stop to be reasonable, it must be supported by, at a minimum, reasonable suspicion to believe that a traffic violation occurred.
The court next examined the traffic offense for which Cheeks was stopped, Alabama Code 32-5A-133. The court stated
Alabama Code § 32-5A-133 requires a driver to signal through the completion of a lane change. Alabama Code § 32-5A-133(a) provides that “[n]o person shall turn a vehicle or move right or left upon a roadway . . . without giving an appropriate signal in the manner hereinafter provided.” Alabama Code § 32-5A-133(b) provides that “[a] signal of intention to turn right or left when required shall be given continuously during not less than the last 100 feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.[iii]
In addition to the code section, the court also noted the Supreme Court, in Heien v. North Carolina[iv], held that if an officer makes a traffic stop based on a reasonable misunderstanding of a traffic law, the stop is still reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
After examining the Alabama statute at issue, the court then held that it is reasonable to conclude that the 100-feet requirement for signaling means that the signal must be given until the lane change is completed. As such, the officer’s interpretation of the statute was reasonable and the traffic stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The second issue was whether the officer impermissibly expanded the scope of the traffic stop when he began a drug investigation during the traffic stop.
The court then discussed the relevant law regarding expanding the scope of traffic stop. Specifically, the court stated
Even stops initially supported by reasonable suspicion may nonetheless violate the Fourth Amendment if the officer “diverts from the stop’s purpose and adds time to the stop in order to investigate other crimes” without reasonable suspicion. United States v. Campbell, 912 F.3d 1340, 1353 (11th Cir. 2019) (explaining that under the standard emanating from Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1614-16 (2015), a stop is unlawfully prolonged when an officer “(1) conduct[s] an inquiry aimed at investigating other crimes (2) that adds time to the stop (3) without reasonable suspicion“). “[T]he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop, and attend to related safety concerns.” Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. at 1614 (internal citation omitted). “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.” Id.
The mission of the traffic stop includes “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop.” Id. at 1615 (quoting Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 408 (2005)). Those ordinary inquiries typically include “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Id. They also include questions about travel plans. Campbell, 912 F.3d at 1354. The officer may also take “negligibly burdensome precautions” that are necessary to complete the stop safely. Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. at 1616. What the officer may not do is extend the duration of the stop in order to investigate, without reasonable suspicion, other crimes. Campbell, 912 F.3d at 1353.
However, an officer may lawfully extend the stop if he acquires an objectively reasonable and articulable suspicion that illegal activity has occurred or is occurring. See Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. at 1615; accord United States v. Ramirez, 476 F.3d 1231, 1237 (11th Cir. 2007).[v] (emphasis added)
In other words, if an officer conducts a traffic stop for a traffic violation and then, without reasonable suspicion of some other criminal activity, begins to ask questions unrelated to the reason for the stop, such that those questions add time to the stop, the stop can be held to violate the Fourth Amendment, and as such, any evidence obtained would be suppressed. However, if during the proper course of the traffic stop, an officer notices evidence of some other criminal activity, the officer may expand the scope of the stop and investigate that other criminal activity, even if it adds time to the stop.
In Cheeks’ case, the officer testified that he smelled the odor of burnt marijuana and observed marijuana residue on the inside of the passenger door. The court of appeals stated
Our precedent makes clear that an officer’s level of suspicion rises to the level of probable cause when he detects “what he [knows] from his law enforcement experience to be the odor of marijuana.” United States v. Tobin, 923 F.2d 1506, 1512 (11th Cir. 1991). Accordingly, the smell of marijuana gave Officer Turner reasonable suspicion that additional criminal activity had occurred or was occurring, which justified extending the stop.[vi] (emphasis added)
On appeal, Cheeks argued that the officer did not take photographs of the marijuana residue, did not use his canine to sniff the vehicle, and did not locate any marijuana in the vehicle; therefore, the officer’s testimony must not have been credible. However, the court of appeals noted that the district court made a finding after the officer’s testimony that he was credible, and the court of appeals is required to accept the findings of fact from the district court. As such, the court held that there was sufficient reasonable suspicion or probable cause, to expand the investigation to include drugs.
The court then affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 18-14796 (11th Cir. Decided November 20, 2019 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 3-5
[iii] Id. at 10
[iv] 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014)
[v] Cheeks at 12-13
[vi] Id. at 14