On May 26, 2022, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Noriega[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to when it is permissible to expand the scope of a traffic stop beyond the original purpose of the stop. The relevant facts of Noriega are as follows:
Noriega acted as a delivery driver for the conspiracy, transporting methamphetamine to Iowa. The district court attributed 22 pounds, or 9,620 grams, of actual or ice methamphetamine to Noriega that originated from a November 15, 2019, traffic stop. While Noriega was traveling through Colorado, Officer Michael Miller of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department stopped Noriega after observing him traveling in the left-hand lane, a violation of Colorado law. See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 42-4-1005(1). Officer Miller later testified about this traffic stop, as did Special Agent Shane Gosnell of the Department of Homeland Security, who arrived after the stop was already in progress to assist Officer Miller. Upon Special Agent Gosnell’s arrival, he took a “cover” position at the front passenger side of Officer Miller’s patrol vehicle, which was parked behind Noriega’s vehicle.
After stopping Noriega, Officer Miller approached Noriega’s front passenger-side window and smelled an overwhelming “perfume-type odor” emanating from Noriega’s front and rear passenger-side windows. When Noriega handed Officer Miller his driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, Officer Miller observed that Noriega’s hand was “trembling” and his face was “twitching.” Officer Miller noticed that Noriega had a Nevada driver’s license and license plate and a Las Vegas, Nevada address. Officer Miller testified that Las Vegas is a “transshipment center,” i.e., a location where large quantities of narcotics are shipped to and then trafficked to states further inland.
Officer Miller testified that when asked about his travel plans, Noriega said that he was traveling to his brother’s house for “maybe the weekend” despite not knowing his brother’s address or how to find his brother. Officer Miller explained that Noriega appeared to be uncomfortable answering questions about his travel plans and repeatedly attempted to divert the conversation to other topics. Similarly, Special Agent Gosnell explained that when Officer Miller returned to his patrol vehicle to run Noriega’s driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, he mentioned that Noriega was “overly nervous,” was providing “vague and implausible travel plans,” and a “strong perfume-like odor [was] coming from the vehicle.”
Seeing that Noriega’s license was valid and there were no outstanding warrants for him, Officer Miller returned to Noriega’s front passenger-side window. Officer Miller testified that, at this time, he noticed that the “perfume” scent had dissipated. Officer Miller returned Noriega’s driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance and told him that he was “good to go.” Noriega thanked Officer Miller and put his vehicle into gear.
However, before Noriega pulled away, Officer Miller asked Noriega if he was carrying any narcotics. Noriega said no, so Officer Miller asked to search Noriega’s vehicle. Noriega expressed his confusion, telling Officer Miller that he thought that he was free to go. This exchange continued, with Noriega asking if he was required to consent to a search and Officer Miller telling Noriega that he had a drug dog in his patrol vehicle. Eventually, Officer Miller directed Special Agent Gosnell to remove the drug dog from the patrol vehicle. Officer Miller testified that upon seeing the dog, Noriega agreed to a dog sniff around the perimeter of his vehicle. Officer Miller testified that Noriega asked to exit the vehicle prior to the dog sniff, which Officer Miller allowed, and according to Officer Miller’s testimony, upon Noriega’s exit, Noriega’s legs were visibly “shaking.” The dog alerted Officer Miller to the driver-side lower rear door seam. Officer Miller testified that he asked Noriega if he could search the interior of Noriega’s vehicle and Noriega agreed.
The search of Noriega’s vehicle revealed 22 packages containing a total of 22 pounds of actual or ice methamphetamine. Noriega explained that he had been hired to deliver methamphetamine to Des Moines, Iowa, and was to be paid $400 per pound of methamphetamine transported. Officer Miller detained Noriega, and Noriega was then transported to Iowa. In a post-Miranda interview, Noriega consented to a search of his phone, and on the phone, investigators found photographs of receipts for wire transfers that Noriega had received as payment for his transport of the methamphetamine. While searching Noriega’s phone, investigators also saw that one of Noriega’s “handlers” had sent Noriega an address to which Noriega was to deliver the methamphetamine. That address belonged to one of Noriega’s co-conspirators not currently before this Court.[ii]
Noriega was subsequently charged with federal drug violations, as part of a conspiracy involving three other defendants. He filed a motion to suppress the drugs and all evidence derived from the stop, arguing that the officer violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment because he expanded the scope of the stop without reasonable suspicion. The government argued that the officer had released Noriega, and the encounter had become consensual. The district court denied the motion to suppress and held that the encounter was consensual, but even if it were deemed an expanded stop, that expansion was supported by reasonable suspicion, based on the totality of the circumstances and the officer’s training and experience. Noriega appealed the denial of his motion to suppress.
On appeal, Noriega argued that the officer expanded the scope of the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and this violated the Fourth Amendment; as such, he argued that all evidence derived from the stop should be suppressed. The government argued that the “stop” had become a consensual encounter after the officer returned Noriega’s documents and told him he was “good to go.” However, the court of appeals chose to not examine whether the encounter was consensual, and instead focused on whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to justify expanding the scope of the stop.
The court then noted the legal principles relevant to when an officer can expand the scope of a traffic stop. The court stated
“A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation . . . ‘become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission’ of issuing a ticket for the violation.” Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 350-51, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 191 L. Ed. 2d 492 (2015) (second and third alterations in original) (citation omitted)). “To extend a routine traffic stop, an officer needs reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion requires ‘specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant’ a brief investigative stop.” Callison, 2 F.4th at 1132 (citations omitted); see also United States v. Englehart, 811 F.3d 1034, 1040-41 (8th Cir. 2016) “The reasonable suspicion inquiry asks ‘whether the detaining officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting wrongdoing.” United States v. Sanchez, 955 F.3d 669, 674 (8th Cir. 2020) (citation omitted). “[O]ur review on this issue looks to the totality of the circumstances, ‘allow[ing] officers to draw on their own experience and specialized training to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to them.'” United States v. Dortch, 868 F.3d 674, 680 (8th Cir. 2017) (second alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Arizona, 534 U.S. 266, 273, 122 S. Ct. 744, 151 L. Ed. 2d 740 (2002)).[iii]
The court of appeals then set out to examine the facts of the case relevant to whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to expand the scope of the traffic stop.
First, the court of appeals noted that Noriega was traveling from Las Vegas, Nevada, which the officer testified that he knew by his training and experience was a common point of origin for distribution of narcotics. Second, Noriega’s demeanor was overly nervous, as he was visibly “shaking,” his face was “twitching,” and he was “trembling.” His mouth was also dry. Third, when the officer questioned Noriega about his travel plans, he attempted to change the topic and seemed uncomfortable with those questions. Fourth, the officer testified he smelled a strong odor of a fragrance when he first walked up to the vehicle, which dissipated as the stop continued. The officer testified that his experience is that drug traffickers will spray a fragrance as they are being stopped to mask the odor of drugs, but this will typically dissipate during the course of the stop. Lastly, the officer testified to his extensive training and experience regarding drug interdiction. For example, he had been an officer since 1992, worked with the Western Colorado Drug Task Force since 1999, completed over 1,000 hours of drug interdiction training, conducted thousands of traffic stops, and seized thousands of pounds of narcotics. The court stated that the officer is allowed to “draw on making inferences and deductions about Noriega’s involvement in the transportation of narcotics.”[iv]
In light of the reasons above, the court of appeals held
Viewing these facts cumulatively and considering Officer Miller’s extensive experience and training, we find that he had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop of Noriega. . . Because Officer Miller’s extension of the stop was lawful, suppression of the evidence obtained as a result of that extension is inappropriate.[v]
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 21-1211, No. 21-1324, No. 21-1419, No. 21- 1421 (8th Cir. Decided May 26, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 3-7
[iii] Id. at 10-11 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 12