On April 27, 2021, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Forget[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to the lawful scope of a traffic stop and inventory searches. The relevant facts of Forget, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
On October 10, 2018, detectives Michael Holmberg and Chad Davenport of the Naples Police Department (“NPD”) were surveilling a hotel for drug-related activity in Naples, Florida. Holmberg saw Forget and another man leave the hotel in a red pickup truck. The two men later returned with food and a black backpack and went into a hotel room. Forget and the other man left the hotel room shortly afterward accompanied by a third man and got back into the truck. Forget was sitting in the passenger seat and had the black backpack on the floor between his legs. Holmberg radioed Davenport, who was sitting in a separate car in a different location near the hotel, to tell him that the truck was leaving. Davenport noticed that Forget was not wearing a seatbelt and pulled the truck over as it turned into another nearby parking lot.
The traffic stop began at 1:03 p.m. After pulling the truck over, Davenport asked everyone in the truck for identification, approached the driver’s window, and began speaking with the driver, who he identified as Nicholas Cronin. Cronin refused to provide consent to search the truck. While Davenport was speaking with Cronin, Holmberg arrived on the scene, went to the passenger side of the car, and began speaking with Forget, because Forget had committed the seatbelt offense. Forget told Holmberg that his name was Jason Farber and provided a birthdate, but said he had forgotten his wallet, did not have another form of identification and did not know his social security number. Holmberg noticed that Forget had tattoos that appeared to be jailhouse tattoos and was wearing a long-sleeved shirt, which struck him as odd because it was a hot day. Holmberg asked Forget if he had ever been arrested and Forget said that he had not.
Holmberg returned to his police car to confirm Forget’s identity and radioed dispatch and asked them to search for Jason Farber in the state drivers’ license database. Holmberg learned from dispatch that there was a Jason Farber who lived on the other side of the state, but Farber’s identification picture did not fully match Forget’s appearance. Although there was some similarity between Forget and the picture, Forget’s story about “where he was coming from and where the ID was from . . . didn’t make a lot of sense” to Holmberg. Holmberg also thought it was suspicious that Forget did not know his social security number and was travelling from out of town without a wallet.
Holmberg needed to confirm Forget’s identity to write him a ticket for the seatbelt offense, so at 1:10 p.m. he called in a request for a fingerprint scanner from the county sheriff’s office. A few minutes before he called for a fingerprint scanner, Holmberg called in a request for a K-9 unit despite being unable to smell drugs or see any contraband in the truck. The K-9 unit did not show up and the request was eventually cancelled.
Deputy Creamer from the county sheriff’s office arrived with a fingerprint scanner at approximately 1:30 p.m. Creamer thought he recognized Forget because Forget matched the description of a suspect who had attempted to pass a fake one-hundred-dollar bill at a hardware store less than a quarter of a mile away earlier that morning. The scanner identified Forget and showed two warrants outstanding for his arrest. At approximately 1:36 pm, the officers arrested Forget because of the outstanding warrants and because he had given a false name to a law enforcement officer—a crime under Florida law. As a search incident to the arrest, Davenport searched Forget’s wallet—which was on his person—and found two fake one-hundred-dollar bills.
After Forget’s arrest, Holmberg asked Cronin about the backpack Forget had been carrying, which had been between Forget’s legs on the passenger floorboard during the stop. Cronin replied that the backpack was Forget’s, Cronin did not wish to keep it, and that he did not even know Forget but had only given him a ride. Holmberg and Davenport then performed an inventory search of Forget’s backpack in accordance with NPD policy, which requires that all property taken into custody be documented on a receipt, regardless of whether the property was evidence or personal property. Inside Forget’s backpack, Holmberg and Davenport discovered hard-covered books with counterfeit bills between the pages. Another NPD officer who arrived on the scene created a property receipt to keep track of everything that the officers found.[ii]
Forget was charged under federal law with violations related to counterfeiting. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in the backpack. Specifically, he argued that the stop was unreasonably prolonged with the request to search and that search of the backpack was illegal without a search warrant. The district court denied the motion and Forget was convicted at a bench trial. He then filed a timely appeal to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the denial of his motion to suppress.
On appeal, he argued that the traffic stop was unreasonably prolonged and the warrantless search of his backpack was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The Traffic Stop
The court of appeals first examined if the traffic stop was unreasonably prolonged. The court first discussed the legal principles that are relevant to this issue and stated
When conducting a traffic stop, police officers may not detain a suspect indefinitely and the stop must be “limited in scope and duration,” Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500, 103 S. Ct. 1319, 75 L. Ed. 2d 229 (1983), and cannot be unlawfully prolonged. See Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354-56, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 191 L. Ed. 2d 492 (2015). In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court explained that “[a] seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation.” Id. at 354. In conducting a traffic stop, an officer may, in addition to determining whether to issue a citation, conduct ordinary inquiries such as checking the driver’s license, determining whether the driver has outstanding warrants, and inspecting the vehicle registration and proof of insurance. Id. at 355. The “[a]uthority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.” Id. at 354. If a traffic stop is unlawfully prolonged and violates the Fourth Amendment, any evidence collected may be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. See Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 231-32, 131 S. Ct. 2419, 180 L. Ed. 2d 285 (2011)[iii]
The court of appeals also discussed three Supreme Court cases that are relevant to this issue. First, the court examined Rodriguez v. United States.[iv] In Rodriguez, an officer stopped a car for a traffic violation. The officer issued the driver a citation and returned his license and other documents. The officer then conducted a K9 sniff of the vehicle. The Supreme Court held that the K9 sniff was not incident to issuing a citation for the traffic violation and as such, the officer prolonged the stop beyond the time needed to address the traffic violation. As such, the officer violated the Fourth Amendment.
Second, the court of appeals discussed Illinois v. Caballes.[v] In Caballes, an officer conducted a K9 sniff while an officer was in the process of writing a citation. The Supreme Court held that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the K9 sniff did not lengthen the time of the traffic stop, since the citation was being written while the K9 sniff occurred.
Lastly, the court of appeals discussed Arizona v. Johnson.[vi] In Johnson, three officers conducted a traffic stop of a car in which Johnson was a passenger. As one officer dealt with the driver regarding the traffic violation, another officer questioned Johnson regarding his gang affiliation. The Supreme Court held that the questions to the passenger regarding his gang affiliation did not measurably extend the length of the traffic stop because they occurred simultaneously with the other officer diligently investigating the traffic violation with the driver.
The court then applied the legal principles discussed above to the facts of Forget’s case. First, Forget argued that the officer extended the traffic stop when he asked for permission to search the car and called for a K9 before verifying Forget’s identity. The court of appeals noted that Detective Davenport’s request to search the car and request for K9 occurred simultaneously with Detective Holmberg’s inquiry into Forget’s identity. As such, the requests did not add any time to the stop and did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Second, Forget argued that requesting a fingerprint scanner from the sheriff’s department unreasonably prolonged the stop. The court found that the need for the fingerprint scanner occurred because Forget lied about his identity and the photograph associated with the name he used was not an exact match for Forget. The court also noted that the fact that a K9 unit was called before a fingerprint scanner was irrelevant because it added no time to the stop.
Third, Forget argued that the traffic stop was pretextual because the officers were looking for drugs. However, the court noted
[W]e have held that as long as an officer conducting a traffic stop has probable cause to believe a traffic violation has occurred, “the officer’s motive in making the traffic stop does not invalidate what is otherwise objectively justifiable behavior under the Fourth Amendment.” United States v. Harris, 526 F.3d 1334, 1337 (11th Cir. 2008)[vii]
Thus, since the detectives saw that Forget was not wearing a seatbelt, the traffic stop was valid, even if they were looking for drug violations. Additionally, because the request for consent and call for the K9 took place simultaneously with questioning of Forget about the seatbelt violation and his identity, the unrelated questions did not add time to the stop. Therefore, the stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
The Inventory of Forget’s Backpack
The court of appeals first noted that an “inventory search” is a “well-defined exception” to the search warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment. The court also stated
An inventory search is the search of property lawfully seized and detained, in order to ensure that it is harmless, to secure valuable items (such as might be kept in a towed car), and to protect against false claims of loss or damage.” Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 812 n.1, 116 S. Ct. 1769, 135 L. Ed. 2d 89 (1996) (citing South Dakota v. Opperman, 428 U.S. 364, 96 S. Ct. 3092, 49 L. Ed. 2d 1000 (1976)); see also United States v. Farley, 607 F.3d 1294, 1333 (11th Cir. 2010). Police officers have “both the right and the duty” to take into custody and inventory a suspect’s property that would otherwise be left unattended. United States v. Staller, 616 F.2d 1284, 1290 (5th Cir. 1980).
An inventory search “must not be a ruse for a general rummaging in order to discover incriminating evidence,” Florida v. Wells, 495 U.S. 1, 4, 110 S. Ct. 1632, 109 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1990), but an otherwise reasonable inventory search is not rendered illegal simply because police officers had a “suspicion that contraband or other evidence may be found,” Staller, 616 F.2d at 1290 (quotation omitted). And, if evidence would have inevitably been discovered during a routine inventory search, it is admissible. United States v. Rhind, 289 F.3d 690, 694 (11th Cir. 2002).[i]
In Forget’s case, the police department had a policy that required its officers to search items taken into custody for the purposes of (1) protecting officers from potentially dangerous items, (2) protecting the department from allegations of theft, and (3) safeguarding an arrestee’s property. The court found this policy sufficient despite the fact that it provides officers some discretion. Further, although Forget argued that the detective’s search of his backpack was motivated by a desire to find evidence of a crime, the search was otherwise reasonable because of Forget’s arrest and the inventory policy regarding arrestee’s property. Just because there may be evidence in the property, does not invalidate an otherwise lawful search.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 20-10585 (11th Cir. Decided April 27, 2021 Unpublished )
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 9 (emphasis added)
[iv] 575 U.S. 348 (2015)
[v] 543 U.S. 405 (2005)
[vi] 555 U.S. 323 (2009)
[vii] Forget at 12-13 (emphasis added)
[viii] Id. at 14-15 (emphasis added)