On February 17, 2022, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Louallen v. State[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle and the ability to expand the scope of the stop beyond the traffic violation. The relevant facts of Louallen are as follows:

So viewed, the evidence shows that on October 23, 2017, a state trooper was in radio contact with Drug Enforcement Administration agents, who informed him that someone had obtained what was thought to be illegal narcotics while in the area of Dawson Boulevard and Jimmy Carter Boulevard in Gwinnett County. The trooper, who was told that the suspect was a solo male driver in a gray Dodge Ram truck, located the truck on the I-85 southbound ramp at Jimmy Carter Boulevard. DEA agents were following the vehicle. The DEA agents notified the trooper that the driver had confirmed he had “the product” in his vehicle, and agents requested the trooper to make a traffic stop. While he was behind the gray Dodge Ram, the trooper observed that the vehicle had a brake light out and saw the vehicle make an improper signal. Just before initiating the stop, the trooper verified with the DEA agents that the truck he was following was the target vehicle.

When he approached the vehicle after making the traffic stop, the trooper noticed three cell phones in the center console of the vehicle. The trooper testified that, based on his training and experience, having three cell phones is common for narcotics traffickers. In response to a request for his license, the driver, Louallen, initially only provided an identification card. Louallen later produced a driver’s license when the trooper pointed out that he had been given an identification card. During their discussion, Louallen said that he had traveled to Augusta that day, which the trooper knew to be untrue based on his communications with the DEA agents. When asked “if he had been in any trouble before,” Louallen responded that he had been arrested for one or more methamphetamine offenses in the past and had served a prison sentence.

After filling out a written warning, the trooper checked Louallen’s driver’s license on his car computer and prepared and printed a consent to search form. The trooper obtained both oral and written consent to search the vehicle from Louallen. Prior to the search, Louallen confirmed that everything inside the vehicle belonged to him. The trooper then searched the vehicle and found a plastic bag containing a cookie box. Inside the cookie box was approximately half a kilogram of methamphetamine. Louallen was subsequently indicted for trafficking in methamphetamine.[ii]

Louallen was indicted for trafficking methamphetamine.  He filed a motion to suppress the evidence and argued that the officer impermissibly expanded the scope of the stop when he asked for consent to search his vehicle.  The trial court denied the motion to suppress.  Louallen appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.

On appeal, Louallen conceded that the traffic stop was lawful based on his inoperable brake light, but rather argued that the trooper impermissibly expanded the scope of the stop when he asked for consent to search the vehicle.

On appeal the court first noted the legal principles that were relevant in this case.  The court stated

It is well established that (1) “when an officer observes a traffic offense, the resulting traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution even if the officer has ulterior motives in initiating the stop, and even if a reasonable officer would not have made the stop under the same circumstances.” Hall v. State, 351 Ga. App. 695, 699 (1) (832 SE2d 669) (2019) (citations and punctuation omitted). However, GA(2)[] (2) “a seizure that is lawful at its inception can violate the Fourth Amendment if its manner of execution unreasonably infringes interests protected by the Constitution.” Id. (citations and punctuation omitted). And, “after the tasks related to the investigation of the traffic violation and processing of the citation have been accomplished, an officer cannot continue to detain an individual without reasonable articulable suspicion.” Id. at 699-700 (1) (citations and punctuation omitted). “[I]mportantly, ‘reasonable articulable suspicion’ requires a particularized and objective basis for suspecting that a citizen is involved in criminal activity.Id. at 700 (1) (citations and punctuation omitted).[iii]

In Louallen’s case, the court of appeals noted that the trooper did have reasonable suspicion to believe that Louallen was involved in criminal activity beyond the traffic violation; particularly, the trooper was aware that the driver of the truck was suspected by the DEA of being involved in a drug transaction and was in possession of “product.”  The court stated

Here, the trooper had reasonable articulable suspicion that Louallen was involved in criminal activity — other than mere traffic violations — when the trooper initiated the traffic stop. “This is because reasonable articulable suspicion need not be based on an arresting officer’s knowledge alone, but may exist based on the collective knowledge of the police when there is reliable communication between an officer supplying the information and an officer acting on that information.” Hall, 351 Ga. App. at 700 (1)[iv]

Therefore, because the trooper possessed reasonable suspicion that Louallen was involved in possession of illegal drugs, the mission of the traffic stop included investigating whether or not he possessed drugs.  As such, asking for consent to search was within the scope of the stop.

Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.



[i] A21A1418 (Ga. App. Decided February 17, 2022)

[ii] Id. at 1-2

[iii] Id. at 5 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 5-6 (emphasis added)

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