On April 7, 2020, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Mayville[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to the extent of questioning and record checks that are permissible during the scope of a traffic stop. The relevant facts of Mayville, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
Around 1:45 a.m. on May 6, 2016, Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Jason Tripodi stopped a red Audi for traveling 71 m.p.h. in a 60-m.p.h. zone, in violation of state law. After the Audi came to a stop, Trooper Tripodi observed the driver hunched over in the vehicle as if he was “trying to stash something or hide something.” Trooper Tripodi approached the Audi and spoke with Defendant, who was the driver and sole occupant of the vehicle, about his speeding.
During this initial interaction, which lasted about six minutes, Defendant informed Trooper Tripodi he was traveling to Grand Junction, Colorado, from Lake Havasu, Arizona. Trooper Tripodi asked for Defendant’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. While Defendant searched for these documents, Trooper Tripodi noticed Defendant had trouble finding the requested paperwork. After several minutes, Defendant provided his out-of-state driver’s license to Trooper Tripodi, but he was unable to produce any registration documents for the vehicle.
According to Trooper Tripodi, Defendant “seemed confused” and “wasn’t able to multitask like a normal individual would be able to” during this initial interaction. Trooper Tripodi also observed that Defendant seemed like he “was drowsy, or something was wrong, something was up.” Based on these observations, Trooper Tripodi asked Defendant if he “was okay” multiple times. Trooper Tripodi asked Defendant to accompany him to the patrol car to chat while he filled out the paperwork for the stop. Defendant declined this invitation and remained in his vehicle.
Around 1:52 a.m., seven minutes after the stop began, Trooper Tripodi returned to his patrol car and began filling out paperwork for the stop. He also radioed dispatch to run a records check on Defendant, which consisted of two components. First, Trooper Tripodi asked dispatch to run Defendant’s license and check for warrants. Second, the trooper requested Defendant’s criminal history through the Interstate Identification Index, commonly referred to as a Triple I check. After radioing dispatch for the records, but before dispatch returned the results, Trooper Tripodi requested a narcotic detector dog. He then continued working on the citation, including “attempting to figure out whose vehicle it was because [Defendant] ha[d] no registration paperwork.”
At approximately 1:59 a.m., Trooper Scott Mackleprang arrived at the scene with his narcotic detector dog, Hasso. At this point, Trooper Tripodi backed up his patrol car because he anticipated possibly “run[ning] through sobriety tests or something like that at a later point in the stop.” After briefly speaking with Trooper Tripodi, who remained in his patrol car and continued to work on the citation, Trooper Mackleprang asked Defendant to exit the vehicle so he could screen it with Hasso. Because Defendant refused, Trooper Mackleprang requested Trooper Tripodi’s assistance. Trooper Mackleprang observed that Defendant was “real slow to answer” and had delayed reactions, “almost like a blank stare,” which caused him to suspect Defendant was impaired. Defendant ultimately exited the vehicle, and Trooper Tripodi patted him down for weapons.
Trooper Tripodi then stood with Defendant on the side of the road while Trooper Mackleprang had Hasso conduct a free-air sniff around the car. At approximately 2:05 a.m., Hasso alerted to the odor of narcotics in the vehicle. And less than thirty seconds later, dispatch responded to Trooper Tripodi’s records request with information indicating Defendant had a criminal record. The entirety of the traffic stop, from Trooper Tripodi’s initial contact with Defendant to Hasso’s alert, lasted approximately nineteen minutes.
The subsequent search of Defendant’s vehicle revealed a methamphetamine pipe under the driver’s seat and two guns, one equipped with a silencer, in the engine compartment. In the trunk, the troopers found roughly a pound of methamphetamine, an ounce of heroin, and a scale. After discovering the guns and drugs, the troopers placed Defendant under arrest.
The grand jury indicted Defendant for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, possession of heroin with intent to distribute, possession of an unregistered firearm silencer, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.[ii]
Mayville filed a motion to suppress the evidence and the district court denied the motion. He entered a guilty plea with the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. He then filed a timely appeal with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Mayville argued that the trooper impermissibly extended the duration of the traffic stop when he conducted a criminal history check because it was unrelated to the reason for the traffic stop. He also argued that choosing to have the dispatcher conduct the check rather than using the patrol car’s computer further extended the length of the stop.
The court first noted the controlling legal principle for this case, which is
An officer’s authority to seize a driver “ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.” Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 354. Officers may not prolong a stop beyond that point for the purpose of detecting evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing unless separate reasonable suspicion exists to justify further investigation. Id. at 354-55. Even de minimis delays caused by unrelated inquiries violate the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 355-57.[iii]
The court of appeals noted that the Supreme Court, in Rodriguez, stated that officers are allowed “to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns.”[iv] Additionally, the Supreme Court stated that officers may also conduct
[N]egligibly burdensome inquiries an officer needs to make “to complete his mission safely” among permissible actions incident to a traffic stop. Id. As Rodriguez explained, “[T]he government’s officer safety interest stems from the mission of the stop itself.”[v]
The Tenth Circuit also noted that their precedent has allowed officers to conduct criminal history checks during traffic stops. Specifically, the court stated
This court has routinely permitted officers to conduct criminal-history checks during traffic stops in the interest of officer safety. See, e.g., United States v. Burleson, 657 F.3d 1040, 1046 (10th Cir. 2011) (“[A]n officer may run a background check on a motorist to check for warrants or criminal history even though the purpose of the stop had nothing to do with the motorist’s history.”); United States v. Rice, 483 F.3d 1079, 1084 (10th Cir. 2007) (“While a traffic stop is ongoing . . . an officer has wide discretion to take reasonable precautions to protect his safety. Obvious precautions include running a background check on the driver . . . .” (citations omitted)). Notably, in Rodriguez, the Court cited [*10] with approval our decision in United States v. Holt, 264 F.3d 1215, 1221-22 (10th Cir. 2001) (en banc), overturned on other grounds by Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93, 125 S. Ct. 1465, 161 L. Ed. 2d 299 (2005), as an example of a proper inquiry during a traffic stop. Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 356; see also Cone, 868 F.3d at 1153 (recognizing approval of Holt in Rodriguez and concluding an officer may reasonably ask questions about a driver’s criminal history during a routine traffic stop). Our Holt decision, the Court ably noted, “recogniz[ed] [an] officer safety justification for criminal record and outstanding warrant checks.” Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 356. Thus, an officer’s decision to run a criminal-history check on an occupant of a vehicle after initiating a traffic stop is justifiable as a “negligibly burdensome precaution” consistent with the important governmental interest in officer safety.[vi]
Therefore, it was reasonable and within the scope of the traffic stop, for the trooper to conduct a criminal history check of Mayville during the stop.
The remaining question for the court was whether it was reasonable for the trooper to contact the dispatcher to conduct the criminal history check as opposed to conducting it himself on the computer in his patrol vehicle. Mayville’s argued that the criminal history check would have been faster had the trooper conducted it in his car, therefore, using the dispatcher unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop.
The court of appeals disagreed with Mayville’s argument on this issue. First, the court noted that there was no evidence that the trooper could have completed the check faster in his car. Second, the court stated that, even if running the criminal history check through the dispatcher took longer then checking it in car, it was still reasonable to check it through the dispatcher. The court stated
[E]ven if the Triple I check extended the duration of the stop, Trooper Tripodi’s request for criminal-history records through dispatch was not unreasonable as a matter of law. Trooper Tripodi, who the district court deemed credible, testified that he conducted the Triple I check through dispatch because the computer in his patrol car provides limited information, especially with respect to out-of-state drivers. The record plainly shows Defendant provided an out-of-state license and was driving an out-of-state vehicle. Moreover, Trooper Tripodi developed concerns based on Defendant’s apparent stashing of something under the driver’s seat, Defendant’s demeanor during their initial six-minute interaction, and Defendant’s inability to provide registration paperwork for the vehicle. Given these circumstances, Trooper Tripodi’s decision to run a Triple I check through dispatch—as opposed to limiting his records check to the computer in [*14] his patrol car—did not unreasonably prolong the stop.[vii]
The court explained that the Fourth Amendment does not require an officer to use the “least intrusive” or fastest means to accomplish a task; rather, the Fourth Amendment requires that an officer act reasonably. Here, the trooper acted reasonably in his choice to have the dispatcher conduct the criminal history check, and as such, he did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 10825
[ii] Id. at 2-6
[iii] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. (quoting Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 354)
[vi] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)
[vii] Id. at 13-14 (emphasis added)