On March 14, 2022, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Ambriz-Villa[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related the scope of traffic stops and requests for consent to search. The relevant facts of Ambriz-Villa are as follows:
Ambriz-Villa drove past Illinois State Trooper John Payton on I-57, where Trooper Payton was parked in his patrol car. Trooper Payton, who is specially trained in drug interdiction, made several observations about Ambriz-Villa’s car which led him to suspect potential drug trafficking activity. When Ambriz-Villa’s car crossed the solid white line on the shoulder of the road, Trooper Payton executed a pretextual traffic stop. As was his custom, Trooper Payton asked Ambriz-Villa to sit in the front seat of the patrol car as a safety measure for the duration of the traffic stop. While processing a warning for the traffic violation, Trooper Payton asked Ambriz-Villa about his background and purpose for traveling. Ambriz-Villa said he owned a tire shop in Nebraska and was driving to Georgia for his nephew’s birthday and that the rest of his family had flown down. When asked why he chose to drive alone, Ambriz-Villa “floundered nonresponsive,” and then when asked again, stated that it was because he liked to drive. Still processing the warning, Trooper Payton asked more questions. Throughout this conversation, Ambriz-Villa’s unusual responses and excessively nervous and evasive reactions raised Trooper Payton’s suspicion that Ambriz-Villa was involved in criminal activity.
After processing the warning, Trooper Payton handed it to Ambriz-Villa, who then opened the door and began to exit the patrol car. When Ambriz-Villa was “halfway out the door,” Trooper Payton asked, “Do you mind if I ask you a few more questions?” Ambriz-Villa agreed, and Trooper Payton then asked whether he was involved in any drug activity (which Ambriz-Villa denied) and if he would consent to a search of his car. Ambriz-Villa said yes. Trooper Payton asked again “for clarification”, and Ambriz-Villa again confirmed that he consented to the search of his car. The search uncovered 13 packages (roughly one kilogram each) of methamphetamine.[ii]
Ambriz-Villa was subsequently charged with federal drug offenses. He filed a motion to suppress and argued (1) that the officer violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment by exceeding the permissible scope of the traffic stop and (2) that his consent was involuntary. The district court denied the motion and he pleaded guilty with the right to appeal. He then filed a timely appeal.
On appeal, Ambriz-Villa argued (1) that the trooper exceeded the scope of the stop by asking him numerous questions unrelated to the stop, and (2) that his consent was involuntary because the trooper subjected him to a second detention as he was leaving.
The first issue examined by the court of appeals was whether the scope and manner of the stop was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the trooper asked Ambriz-Villa “repetitive and persistent questions,” not related to the original reason for the stop, while he was seated in the front seat of the patrol car.
The court noted that
Thus, the court stated
Trooper Payton was permitted to ask Ambriz-Villa questions unrelated to the reason for the stop without reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity, even if the questioning was repetitive and persistent, so long as the questioning did not prolong the duration of the stop, which Ambriz-Villa does not contest on appeal. . . And it makes no difference that Ambriz-Villa was in the patrol car during the questioning. Trooper Payton was permitted to ask Ambriz-Villa to sit in the patrol car while he wrote the warning. See United States v. Lewis, 920 F.3d 483, 492 (7th Cir. 2019) (an officer may ask a driver to sit in his patrol car during a valid traffic stop, without any particularized suspicion).[iv]
In Ambriz-Villa’s case, the trooper asked the unrelated questions as he was actively working on the issuance of the warning citation. Thus, the questions did not extend the length of the stop.
As such, the court of appeals held that the scope and manner of the stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
The second issue before the court was whether his consent was tainted because (1) the scope of the stop was overly intrusive and expanded, (2) the consent was the product of a second detention that occurred as he was exiting the trooper’s car, and (3) the consent was not voluntarily given.
First, the court stated that since they already held that the scope and manner of the stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment, neither did it render Ambriz-Villa’s consent invalid.
Second, the court noted that the traffic stop ended when the trooper gave Ambriz-Villa the warning citation. The court of appeals cited their decision in the United States v. Rivera[v], in which they held that a
[D]efendant was not in custody after he was given his written warning, “had all his identification, he was told that the investigation was over, he was free to leave at his pleasure and, indeed, was leaving when the trooper popped the question of consensual search.[vi]
In Ambriz-Villa’s case, he was provided his warning citation and was exiting the trooper’s car, when the trooper asked him, “Do you mind if I ask you a few more questions?” At this point, the encounter with Ambriz-Villa was consensual. Ambriz-Villa, argued that the at this point, no reasonable person would have felt free to ignore the trooper and walk away. The court of appeals stated
[U]nder the totality of the circumstances, Ambriz-Villa’s consent was freely given. Ambriz-Villa was in fact leaving: it is undisputed that Trooper Payton had handed him the warning ticket and that Ambriz-Villa was exiting the police car at the time the consent to search was sought. As noted above, in Rivera, a case with very similar facts, we found that a reasonable person in a comparable position would have felt free to leave at this point of the interaction. 906 F.2d at 323. Furthermore, the interaction took place on a public interstate highway during the day; Trooper Payton showed no weapons or other physical force; and the language and tone were limited to a series of targeted questions and confirmed whether a search would be allowed.[vii]
Lastly, the court examined whether the consent was voluntarily given. The court discussed the factors they consider when deciding if consent was voluntarily given and stated
To evaluate voluntariness of consent to a search, we look to the totality of the circumstances, considering the following factors: “(1) the person’s age, intelligence, and education; (2) whether he was advised of his constitutional rights; (3) how long he was detained before he gave his consent; (4) whether his consent was immediate, or was prompted by repeated requests by the authorities; (5) whether any physical coercion was used; and (6) whether the individual was in police custody when he gave his consent.” United States v. Figueroa-Espana, 511 F.3d 696, 704-05 (7th Cir. 2007).[viii]
After examining the totality of the circumstances, the court noted that the length of the detention was reasonable, the consent was promptly requested, there was no physical coercion or display of weapons, and Ambriz-Villa was free to go at the time he provided consent.
As such, the court of appeals held that Ambriz-Villa’s consent was voluntarily given.
Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 21-1362 (7th Cir. Decided March 14, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 2-4
[iii] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. (emphasis added)
[v] 906 F.2d 319, 323 (7th Cir. 1990)
[vi] Ambriz-Villa at 7
[vii] Id. at 8-9
[viii] Id. at 7-8 (emphasis added)