On June 11, 2021, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Segovia[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to legal requirements for questions that are unrelated to the purpose of a traffic stop. The relevant facts of Segovia are as follows:
In November 2018, Gonzalez Segovia was driving eastbound on Interstate 78 in a black Ford Expedition when he was stopped by Pennsylvania State Trooper John Stepanski. After following Gonzalez Segovia for several minutes and seeing him drive too close to a large commercial truck, Trooper Stepanski initiated the stop at mile marker 72.2 in Northampton County. After Stepanski activated his overhead lights, Gonzalez Segovia did not pull over immediately, continuing for a time before stopping on a bridge. For safety reasons, Stepanski ordered the vehicle to move off the bridge and Gonzalez Segovia did so after a relatively brief delay. On the roadside, Stepanski identified himself as state police; requested Gonzalez Segovia’s driver’s license, registration, and insurance; stated that the conversation was being recorded; and explained the traffic infraction. Stepanski later testified that Gonzalez Segovia was so nervous that as he presented his driver’s license he had to drop his elbow onto the vehicle’s center console to stop shaking.
When Stepanski asked Gonzalez Segovia where he was coming from and where he was headed, Gonzalez Segovia responded “Ohio” and “New Jersey.” Traffic Stop Video at 11:30-45. But when Stepanski asked what part of New Jersey, Gonzalez Segovia replied “Brooklyn.” Id. Stepanski pointed out that Brooklyn is in New York.
Stepanski then asked a series of questions about the purpose of Gonzalez Segovia’s trip, such as what was going on in Brooklyn, who he was visiting, and his specific destination. Gonzalez Segovia said he was visiting a cousin but did not have the address—even in his GPS—yet he knew where he was going.
Stepanski continued asking questions and Gonzalez Segovia disclosed the name of his cousin and that the vehicle was rented. Gonzalez Segovia said he was from California and that he drove from California to Ohio but did not visit anyone in Ohio. Gonzalez Segovia also told Stepanski that he planned to stay in Brooklyn for a couple of days before returning to Ohio.
The questioning continued and Gonzalez Segovia stated, among other things, that he rented his vehicle in Ohio the day before and it was due back the next day. He also said that he worked for a moving company and had done a job in Ohio. As they spoke, Stepanski noticed at least six “fairly large” suitcases inside the vehicle. App. 83.
The questioning took a little over four minutes, after which Stepanski returned to his police vehicle to request backup and to run Gonzalez Segovia’s license and vehicle plate through law enforcement databases. By that time, Stepanski “knew [he] wanted to search [Gonzalez Segovia’s] vehicle.” Id. at 85.
After the database check, Stepanski asked Gonzalez Segovia if he had any guns or knives (he did not); instructed him to exit his vehicle; and asked more questions by the roadside, including questions about Gonzalez Segovia’s criminal history and the presence of contraband in the car (Gonzalez Segovia responded there was none). Stepanski then sought and received Gonzalez Segovia’s verbal permission to search the vehicle. The trooper quoted and paraphrased a “Waiver of Rights and Consent to Search” form and had Gonzalez sign it before the search. Traffic Stop Video at 28:27-29:31; see App. 274. Inside one of the suitcases in the car, Stepanski found several kilogram-sized packages of drugs, so he and another trooper arrested Gonzalez Segovia and had his vehicle towed to a police facility.[ii]
Segovia was indicted for drug violations under federal law. He filed a motion to suppress, which was denied by the district court. He entered a conditional guilty plea with the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. He then filed a timely appeal with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Issue One: Whether the trooper had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop of Segovia?
The court of appeals first noted the relevant legal principles and stated
An officer may initiate a traffic stop based on a “reasonable suspicion that a traffic violation has occurred.” United States v. Green, 897 F.3d 173, 178 (3d Cir. 2018). “Reasonable suspicion is more than a mere hunch but considerably less than a preponderance of the evidence,” requiring “only a particularized and objective basis for suspecting criminal activity.” Id. at 183 (cleaned up). “[W]hat matters is not what is in the mind of the officer making the stop but whether, given the particular circumstances, a reasonable officer could articulate sound reasons for it.” United States v. Yusuf, 993 F.3d 167, 182 n.12 (3d Cir. 2021). And an officer’s use of a traffic stop as a pretext for investigating other crimes is “irrelevant” to the legality of the decision to pull a driver over. United States v. Wilson, 960 F.3d 136, 145 (3d Cir. 2020).[iii]
Thus, as long as the officer had reasonable suspicion that Segovia had committed a traffic violation, the stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. This is so even if the subjective intent of the officer was to investigate some other crime.
In Segovia’s case, the court of appeals noted that there was video from the trooper’s dashboard camera that showed that Segovia followed a commercial truck too closely, in violation of Pennsylvania law. As such, the traffic stop was based on reasonable suspicion and was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Issue Two: Whether, without reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity, [the trooper] measurably prolonged the stop beyond the time needed “to address the traffic violation . . . and attend to related safety concerns?[iv]
Segovia argued that, within the first minute of the traffic stop, the trooper changed from questions that were within the scope of the stop, to questions that were a “fishing expedition” for other criminal activity.
The court of appeals stated
The court then noted that the questions at the beginning of the stop regarding where Segovia was coming from and going fall within the ordinary scope of the traffic stop. However, the court also noted that the follow-up questions about what he was doing in Brooklyn and who he was going to see there were investigatory, and not related to the traffic violation or officer safety.
However, the court of appeals stated that even though the follow-up questions were outside of the scope of the stop, they were permissible because, at that point, the trooper had reasonable suspicion to expand the stop. The court of appeals explained how reasonable suspicion developed in this case and stated
Stepanski was justified in initially extending the stop because Gonzalez Segovia: (1) was slow to pull over; (2) responded belatedly to the instruction to move forward past the bridge; (3) appeared “extremely nervous”; and (4) said he was going to Brooklyn right after saying he was headed to New Jersey. Together, these factors gave Stepanski grounds to inquire about Gonzalez Segovia’s trip outside the scope of the traffic stop. And the answers to those questions heightened the reasonable suspicion: Gonzalez Segovia did not have the address of his destination; he inconsistently stated that he was going to Brooklyn for a couple of days but had to return his car to Ohio the next day; and he had much more luggage than one would expect given his allegedly short trip. These factors gave Stepanski cause to prolong the stop further and ask to search the vehicle, which led him to the drug-filled suitcases.[vi]
As such, Trooper Stepanski did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he asked Segovia questions unrelated to the original purpose of the stop.
Issue Three: Whether Segovia consented to the search of his car?
The court of appeals began this issue by noting that they must consider the consent in light of the totality of the circumstances and consider relevant factors related to the consent. The court stated
Relevant factors include “the age, education, and intelligence of the subject; whether the subject was advised of his or her constitutional rights; the length of the encounter; the repetition or duration of the questioning; and the use of physical punishment.” United States v. Williams, 898 F.3d 323, 332 (3d Cir. 2018)[vii]
Segovia argued that the when the trooper asked for consent, he was talking fast, walking away from him, and had his hand on his firearm. He added that traffic was speeding past them, a back-up officer was present and that the trooper did not read him the entire consent form, but rather summarized it. He also said the trooper made grammatical errors that would confuse a native Spanish speaker. Lastly, he argued that the trooper did not tell him that he would be searching his luggage.
The court of appeals addressed Segovia’s arguments. First, they noted that the trooper’s demeanor was non-threatening. Second, the trooper obtained Segovia’s verbal and written consent to search his car. Third, there was never any indication that Segovia, who is fluent in English, did not understand the trooper. Fourth, the trooper did not brandish his firearm, but rather rested his hands on his belt. Fifth, the second officer walked over to Segovia after he had started filling out the consent to search form. Last, although the trooper did not read Segovia the entire form, he summarized the important sections and he informed Segovia that he had a right to refuse. As such, the court held that Segovia’s consent was valid.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 20-3028 (3rd Cir. Decided June 11, 2021 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 1-4
[iii] Id. at 5 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 6
[v] Id. at 7 (emphasis added)
[vi] Id. at 7-8
[vii] Id. at 8-9 (emphasis added)