On May 24, 2022, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Gonzalez-Carmona[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to traffic stops and consent searches under the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts of Gonzalez-Carmona are as follows:
Gonzalez-Carmona was driving a rental car on I-80 in Iowa when Deputy Brian Miller pulled her over for going 60 in a 55 mph zone. When he approached the car, Miller smelled an “overwhelming” scent of candles. He asked for identification, and Gonzalez-Carmona gave him a California license and the rental car agreement. She apologized for speeding and explained that she and the passenger, Giovani Andres Jiminez, rented the car in Las Vegas a few days before. Miller, standing on the passenger side of the car, had trouble hearing Gonzalez-Carmona and asked her to get out and talk with him behind the car.
Gonzalez-Carmona told Miller that she and Jiminez, her boyfriend, were going to Iowa. When Miller told her they were already in Iowa, she said they were going to a restaurant in Iowa and then to Ohio. Miller asked her about the rental agreement, which stated the car was due back in Las Vegas the previous day. Gonzalez-Carmona explained that they got an extension. Miller then asked who rented the car. Gonzalez-Carmona did not immediately respond, but looked down at the rental agreement, appearing to search for a name before responding that Jiminez rented it.
Miller then returned to the car to speak with Jiminez, who told him that they were on their way to Des Moines to “look around” and then would return to Las Vegas. Miller asked if they planned on traveling to any other states, and Jiminez said no.
Miller went back to his patrol car to issue a warning citation. Because Gonzalez-Carmona’s license would not scan, he asked her for her current address. She said that she moved from California to Las Vegas two months before, but she did not know her Las Vegas address. She could only describe it as near the Tropicana hotel. Miller asked if she had any mail with her current address, and she responded that she was still getting her mail in California.
Miller finished the citation manually and asked if Gonzalez-Carmona had any questions, and if there was anything illegal in the car. Both Gonzalez-Carmona and Jiminez said that there was not. Miller asked if he could search the car. He showed them a consent-to-search form in English and Spanish and asked if they had any questions. They verbally consented to the search but did not sign the form. Miller asked them to get out of the car and walk ahead, gesturing toward the shoulder. Gonzalez-Carmona started to drive the car where he gestured. Miller placed his hand on the car and told them to get out and walk. They both got out of the car and stood on the shoulder. In the trunk, Miller found three bundles of Firestarter logs with 28.4 pounds of heroin hidden inside. He arrested Gonzalez-Carmona and Jiminez.[ii]
Gonzalez-Carmona was subsequently charged with federal drug violations. She filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that the deputy violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the motion and Gonzalez-Carmona pleaded guilty with the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. She filed a timely appeal.
On appeal, Gonzalez-Carmona argued that the deputy violated the Fourth Amendment as follows: (1) she argued the stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause; (2) she argued that the deputy could not make her exit the vehicle because the request was not for officer safety reasons; (3) she argued that the deputy unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop; and (4) she argued that her consent was involuntary.
The court of appeals then addressed each of Gonzalez-Carmona’s arguments.
I. Did the stop of the vehicle violate the Fourth Amendment?
Regarding this issue, the court of appeals stated
A traffic stop constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and must be supported by either reasonable suspicion or probable cause.” United States v. Foster, 15 F.4th 874, 877 (8th Cir. 2021) (citation omitted). But “any traffic violation, no matter how minor, is sufficient to provide an officer with probable cause.” Id.[iii]
The court noted that the deputy testified that his radar indicated that Gonzalez-Carmona was driving 60 mph in a 55 mph zone. He also said that she repeatedly apologized for speeding after she was stopped. The court of appeals noted that the since the district court found the deputy’s testimony credible, they could only overturn the finding that the traffic stop was lawful if there were evidence that the district court was “clearly erroneous” in its decision.
Here, there was no such evidence to contradict the finding of the district court, therefore, the court of appeals upheld the district court’s finding that there was probable cause to support the traffic stop.
II. Did the deputy violate the Fourth Amendment by having Gonzalez-Carmona exit the vehicle?
Regarding this issue, the court of appeals noted the relevant legal principles and stated
During a lawful traffic stop, an officer may order the occupants to leave their car as a matter of course. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 109-11, 98 S. Ct. 330, 54 L. Ed. 2d 331 (1977) (per curiam); United States v. Sanders, 510 F.3d 788, 790 (8th Cir. 2007). . . But an individualized finding of officer safety concerns is not required. See Mimms, 434 U.S. at 110-11 (holding that officer’s practice of ordering occupants out of the car during all traffic stops was not a constitutional violation).[iv]
Gonzalez-Carmona argued that the deputy was not concerned about his safety so it was a Fourth Amendment violation to order her to exit her vehicle. However, as the court noted from the legal principles above, an officer need not fear for his safety to have the occupants of a vehicle exit the vehicle; the officer can do so “as a matter of course.”
Therefore, the court of appeals held it was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment for the deputy to have Gonzalez-Carmona exit the vehicle.
III. Did the deputy impermissibly expand the scope of the traffic stop?
Regarding this issue, the court first noted the relevant legal principles and stated
A lawful traffic stop can become unconstitutional if it is unreasonably extended. United States v. Callison, 2 F.4th 1128, 1131 (8th Cir. 2021). “A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the 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) (quotation omitted) (cleaned up).
To lawfully extend a traffic stop, an officer must have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Id. at 355. Reasonable suspicion requires “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, amount to reasonable suspicion that further investigation is warranted.” United States v. Murillo-Salgado, 854 F.3d 407, 415 (8th Cir. 2017) (quotation omitted). “An officer’s suspicion of criminal activity may reasonably grow over the course of a traffic stop as the circumstances unfold and more suspicious facts are uncovered.” Id. (citation omitted). We consider the totality of circumstances to decide whether there was reasonable suspicion. Id.[v]
The court of appeals then examined the facts of Gonzalez-Carmona’s case that are relevant to whether the officer developed reasonable suspicion to expand the scope of the stop. The court noted the following relevant facts: (1) the overwhelming odor of candles which the officer knew, by training and experience, is used to mask the odor of drugs; (2) when the deputy asked the driver and passenger about travel plans, they provided conflicting answers; (3) Gonzalez-Carmon’s driver’s license would not scan, she didn’t know her address in Las Vegas, and she stated she still received her mail in California; and (4) Gonzalez-Carmona said that Jiminez, the passenger, was her boyfriend yet she had to read the rental agreement to come up with his full name. The court of appeals then held that these facts, in light of the deputy’s training and experience, provided him with reasonable suspicion to extend the stop.
IV. Did Gonzalez-Carmona and Jiminez voluntarily consent to the search of the car?
The district court held that Gonzalez-Carmona and Jiminez voluntarily consent to the search of their vehicle. The court of appeals noted that since the finding of voluntary consent is a factual finding made by the district court, they must review this, like the first issue, for clear error.
The facts relevant to this issue were as follows: (1) the deputy provided Gonzalez-Carmona and Jiminez with a consent to search for in both English and Spanish and went over the form with them; (2) the deputy testified in court that they both verbally consented but did not sign the form; (3) the deputy asked them to exit the vehicle and pointed where he wanted them to stand; (4) Gonzalez-Carmona began to drive the vehicle where the deputy pointed and deputy put his hand on the car and told her to get out and walk to that location; (5) and she immediately stopped and complied. The court of appeals also noted that there was no evidence that contradicted the deputy’s testimony therefore the district court did not err in finding that Gonzalez-Carmona and Jiminez both gave voluntary consent.
Therefore, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
[i] No. 2101241 (8th Cir. Decided May 24, 2022 Unpublished)
[ii] Id. at 2-5
[iii] Id. at 5 (emphasis added)
[iv]Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 6-7 (emphasis added)