On June 11, 2021, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Buzzard[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to the legal requirement that officers must not exceed the scope of a traffic stop. The relevant facts of Buzzard are as follows:
Shortly after 1:30am on October 12, 2018, West Virginia police officer Tyler Dawson pulled over a car for a defective brake light.1 Buzzard was driving and Martin was in the passenger seat of the car, which had recently left the parking lot of a Sheetz gas station and convenience store. Dawson, who was patrolling alone that night, called into dispatch that he was stopping a vehicle with two occupants and gave his location. He then approached the vehicle and recognized Martin (he’d had prior interactions with Martin while on duty).[ii]
Dawson walked to the driver’s side window and spoke with Buzzard. At this point in a traffic stop, Dawson “[a]lways advise[s] [the occupants] why [he] stopped them and then  always ask[s] for license[,]  registration, [and] proof of insurance.” J.A. 150. In response to this request, Buzzard began looking for the registration and insurance and explained that it wasn’t his car. Dawson then recognized Martin in the passenger’s seat. He knew that Martin had a history of drug addiction, that he’d recently gotten out of prison, and that he was a convicted felon.
As Dawson spoke with Buzzard, Martin kept moving and looking around. Martin “would not sit still in the seat and  wasn’t making eye contact with” Dawson. J.A. 153. Martin also interrupted Dawson repeatedly as he spoke with Buzzard, saying things like “hey, you know, we’re not up to anything. It’s just me.” Id. Martin’s behavior was abnormal for a passenger during a traffic stop, and Dawson suspected that he might run.
Because it was late at night and there were two individuals in the car—one of whom he thought might run—Dawson decided to wait for another officer to arrive before returning to his vehicle to check what information he could (Buzzard hadn’t been able to provide a driver’s license, registration, or insurance). While waiting for an additional officer to arrive, Dawson asked Buzzard if there was anything illegal in the vehicle. He asked this question because of “the time of night and the high drug area, Mr. Martin’s history and Mr. Martin’s behavior.” J.A. 158. In response, Buzzard volunteered the marijuana bowl. Dawson had Buzzard step out of the vehicle and performed a pat search for weapons. During this time, “Martin was bent over. He seemed to be fiddling around near the floorboard of the car.” J.A. 160.
As Dawson finished his pat search of Buzzard, Officer Tony Messer arrived. Dawson passed Buzzard off to Messer and moved to Martin’s side of the car. That’s when Martin produced a hypodermic needle and syringe to Dawson. After Dawson asked Martin to step out of the vehicle and began to perform a pat search on him, Messer told Dawson to cuff Martin because there were guns in the car (after Dawson passed Buzzard off to Messer, Buzzard told Messer that Martin had guns in the car). The police ultimately searched the car and found the two handguns wrapped in socks under the driver’s and passenger’s seats.[iii]
The car was searched and two handguns, wrapped in socks, were located. One was under the driver’s seat and one under the passenger’s seat. Both men were arrested for felon in possession of a firearm.
Subsequently, Martin and Buzzard were charged under federal law. They filed motions to suppress the firearms and argued that Officer Dawson’s question whether they had anything illegal in the car exceeded the scope of the stop and impermissibly prolonged the stop. The district court denied the motions to suppress and both appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Buzzard and Martin argued Dawson’s question regarding illegal items in the vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment because (1) the question was not related to the purpose of the stop, and (2) the question unreasonably prolonged the stop.
Issue One: Was the question about illegal items in the vehicle unrelated the purpose of the stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment?
Buzzard and Martin argued that by asking whether there was anything illegal in the vehicle, Officer Dawson transformed a legitimate traffic stop into a general investigation to determine if they were involved in any criminal activity. They also argued the question was not related to officer safety.
The court of appeals held that this question did related to officer safety and was therefore related to the mission of the traffic stop. The court reasoned that (1) the officer was outnumbered at the time he asked the question, (2) it was late at night in a known high-drug area, and (3) Martin’s unusual behavior all, in totality, factored in to why it was important that Officer Dawson know more about what was in the vehicle.
Thus, the question regarding illegal items in the vehicle did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Issue Two: Did Officer Dawson’s question unreasonably extend the length of the traffic stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment?
The court of appeals first noted the legal principles that control this issue. The court of appeals examined the Supreme Court case, Rodriguez v. United States,[iv] in which an officer used a police K9 to conduct a sniff of the exterior of a vehicle when the driver refused consent to search after the traffic stop was completed. The court stated
In Rodriguez, the Court considered “whether the Fourth Amendment tolerates a dog sniff conducted after completion of a traffic stop.” 575 U.S. at 350 (emphasis added). The Court said no, holding that:
[A] police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures. A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket for the violation. Id. at 350-51 (cleaned up).[v]
Thus, if the officer does not have reasonable suspicion of some other criminal activity after the completion of a traffic stop, it violates the Fourth Amendment to continue to detain the driver for a K9 sniff or questioning. However, the court noted that the Supreme Court, in Illinois v. Caballes[vi], previously held that
The above principle applies when the sniff does not extend the length of the traffic stop. Thus, if the K9 conducts the sniff while the primary officer is simultaneously performing duties related to the traffic stop, the Fourth Amendment is not violated because length of the stop was not extended.
In the case at hand, the court of appeals held that Officer Dawson’s question related to anything illegal in the vehicle did not extend the length of the stop because at the time of the question, the officer did not have the information he need to perform the functions of the traffic stop. For example, the driver, Buzzard, stated that he did not have his license with him and could not locate the vehicle registration. The officer was also waiting on another officer to arrive so the officer could safely continue to proceed with the stop.
The court then stated
Because the question was asked during a lawful traffic stop and didn’t prolong the stop, it passes constitutional muster under Rodriguez even if it exceeded the scope of the stop’s mission. See United States v. Bowman, 884 F.3d 200, 210 (4th Cir. 2018) (“[P]olice during the course of a traffic stop may question a vehicle’s occupants on topics unrelated to the traffic infraction . . . as long as the police do not extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop in order to conduct these unrelated investigations.”)[viii]
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motions to suppress.
1 The parties agree that Dawson lawfully initiated the traffic stop.
[i] No. 20-4087, No. 20-4221, No. 20-4228 (4th Cir. Decided June 11, 2021)
[ii] Id. at 2
[iii] Id. at 5-6
[iv] 575 U.S. 348 (2015)
[v] Buzzard at 11-12
[vi] 543 U.S. 405 (2005)
[vii] Buzzard at 11
[viii] Id. at 12