On August 25, 2021, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Salkil[i], which is instructive regarding the law related to consent searches on traffic stops. The relevant facts of Salkil, taken directly from the case, are as follows:
The case started with a traffic stop in Bettendorf, Iowa. Sergeant Joshua Paul, an officer with the Bettendorf Police Department, stopped Salkil’s car because the rear license plate was not illuminated by light bulbs as required by Iowa law. See Iowa Code § 321.388. Sergeant Paul ran Salkil’s name through a law enforcement database and learned that he had “recent involvement” with one Jamie Fulton “in which guns and drugs were located on a search warrant.”
Another officer arrived on the scene, and Sergeant Paul decided to issue a warning to Salkil. For about thirty-seven seconds, Paul asked Salkil about his connection to Fulton and related matters. Paul then requested consent to search Salkil’s vehicle, and Salkil immediately granted consent. The consent occurred about ten minutes and forty-five seconds after his first contact with Paul. The second officer began to write the warning ticket while Paul searched Salkil’s vehicle.
Paul searched Salkil’s vehicle and discovered a scale with white residue in the center console. Paul also found a handgun in Salkil’s waistband, and methamphetamine and a pipe in his pocket. At that point, while the second officer was still writing the warning ticket, officers placed Salkil under arrest. The ticket-writing process had consumed between three and four minutes before it was interrupted by the arrest.[ii]
Salkil was subsequently indicted under federal gun and drug violations. He filed a motion to suppress, which was denied by the district court. Salkil pleaded guilty with the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. He then filed a timely appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Salkil argued that the gun and the drugs should be suppressed because the sergeant unlawfully prolonged the traffic stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He argued that the stop was (1) longer than the sergeant’s typical traffic stop, (2) the unrelated questions about his association with Jamie Fulton unreasonably prolonged the stop, and (3) writing the citation by hand unreasonably prolonged the stop.
The court of appeals first examined the legal principles relevant to the issue before the court. The court stated
A traffic stop is a seizure within meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and authority for the stop “ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.” Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 191 L. Ed. 2d 492 (2015). During a stop, officers may complete “routine tasks,” such as “computerized checks of . . . the driver’s license and criminal history, and the writing up of a . . . warning.” United States v. Englehart, 811 F.3d 1034, 1040 (8th Cir. 2016) (internal quotation omitted). Officers also “may conduct certain unrelated checks,” but not “in a way that prolongs the stop.” Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 355. The Fourth Amendment does not prevent officers “from asking questions unrelated to the traffic stop” or “seeking consent to search” a vehicle. United States v. Jones, 269 F.3d 919, 925 (8th Cir. 2001).[iii]
The court then addressed each of Salkil’s arguments. First, Salkil argued that his traffic stop lasted twice as long as the sergeant average traffic stop. The sergeant’s average stop lasts approximately 12 minutes. The court noted that the consent to search was obtained 10 minutes and 45 seconds into the traffic stop. Since the consent was obtained the within the overall time of the sergeant’s average traffic stop, this argument failed.
Second, Salkil argued that the sergeant unreasonable prolonged the stop when he questioned him about his association with Jamie Fulton. The court of appeals addressed this argument and stated
While it is possible that investigation of matters unrelated to the mission of the traffic stop could result in an unreasonable seizure if they prolong the detention, see United States v. Peralez, 526 F.3d 1115, 1120-21 (8th Cir. 2008), that is not the case here. Even if the second officer had begun to write the warning ticket while Paul questioned Salkil for thirty-seven seconds about extraneous matters, the ticket-writing process consumed more than three minutes, so Salkil gave consent to search well before the warning ticket would have been completed. In other words, police obtained consent to search within the time reasonably required to complete the mission of the traffic stop. Once police lawfully secured consent to search, any delay occasioned by the search did not constitute an unlawful extension of the seizure. See United States v. Tuton, 893 F.3d 562, 568 (8th Cir. 2018).[iv]
In other words, the thirty-seven second questioning on unrelated matters was determined to be absorbed within the three minutes it took the second officer to write the warning citation; therefore, even if the second officer would have immediately begun writing the warning ticket, the unrelated questions and consent to search would have been obtained while the officer was still writing the warning ticket. Thus, the unrelated questions did not constitute an unlawful extension of the stop, and this argument failed.
Lastly, Salkil argued that having the second officer write the warning citation by hand, rather than using his computer, unlawfully prolonged the stop, because handwriting is slower than the computer. The court of appeals addressed this argument and stated
We are not convinced that the constitutional requirement of reasonableness mandates that police use only computer-generated warning tickets. There is no showing in any event that using a computer would have produced the warning within thirty-seven seconds before Salkil consented to the search. Once Salkil gave consent to search, it did not matter what method was used to generate the warning ticket, because Salkil necessarily consented to an extension of the traffic stop while the search was conducted. United States v. Rivera, 570 F.3d 1009, 1013-14 (8th Cir. 2009).[v]
Thus, the court of appeals held the sergeant did not unreasonably prolong the stop and upheld the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 20-2058 (8th Cir. Decided August 25, 2021)
[ii] Id. at 1-2
[iii] Id. at 3-4 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 4-5 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 5 (emphasis added)