On August 22, 2022, the Court of Appeals of Georgia decided Watson v. State[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to pretextual traffic stops, the use of confidential informants, and reasonable suspicion to expand the scope of a traffic stop. The relevant facts of Watson are as follows:
[F]ederal agents informed a police officer with the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (“HIDTA”) Task Force that a confidential informant (“CI”) reported that Watson would be driving from Alabama to Atlanta to pick up between five and ten kilograms of heroin, cocaine, or both. Multiple law enforcement officers, including Georgia State Patrol troopers, collaboratively worked the operation in response to the tip.
Subsequently, the CI, who was wearing a live recording device, was set to meet with Watson in a hotel parking lot. The CI was given a code phrase to alert the officers that the drugs were on the scene. When Watson arrived in the vehicle identified by the federal agents, the CI used the code phrase and indicated that the drugs were in Watson’s trunk. Watson was allowed to leave the parking lot, and a HIDTA officer alerted the troopers to execute a traffic stop when they had probable cause to do so. As part of the operation, the troopers had been told that Watson would be carrying narcotics.
The trooper who initiated the stop testified that he frequently assisted HIDTA with traffic stops involving drug traffickers; that he listened to what was happening during the drug transaction on the car radio prior to stopping Watson; and that he stopped Watson after observing him following another vehicle too closely. When he approached Watson’s car, the trooper told Watson the reason for the stop, and asked him to get out and sit in the front seat of the police cruiser. Watson could not explain why he was in Georgia and refused to consent to the search of his vehicle. A K-9 unit arrived, and the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics in Watson’s car. The officers then conducted a probable cause search, and the drugs were discovered in the trunk. Watson was charged with trafficking in illegal drugs, specifically heroin.[ii]
Watson filed a motion to suppress the evidence and the trial court denied the motion. He was convicted after a bench trial and subsequently appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.
On appeal, Watson raised three arguments. First, he argued that the information provided by the confidential informant (CI) was insufficient because the state did not establish that the informant was reliable. Second, he argued that the stop violated the Fourth Amendment because it was pretextual. Third, he argued that the trooper exceeded the scope of the stop when he detained him to await the arrival of the K9 unit.
The court of appeals first set out to determine if the state established that the CI was a reliable informant. The court stated
We do not judge the reliability of information provided by an informant by any rigid test. Bryant v. State, 288 Ga. 876, 893 (13) (a) (708 SE2d 362) (2011); see also Nunez-Mendoza v. State, 354 Ga. App. 297, 300 (1) (840 SE2d 771) (2020).
Generally, probable cause is determined by the totality of the circumstances surrounding (1) the basis of the informant’s knowledge and (2) the informant’s veracity or reliability. A deficiency in one may be compensated for, in determining the overall reliability of a tip, by a strong showing as to the other, or by some other indicia of reliability.
The court then noted that, in Watson’s case, the CI gave specific information regarding Watson’s name, gave the time and place for the future drug exchange, and gave a description of Watson’s car. This information was all corroborated by the officer’s surveillance. Additionally, the HIDTA agent testified that the CI had previously provided information that led to convictions and the seizure of illegal drugs. The court of appeals held that the above evidence was sufficient to establish the CI’s reliability.
Second, the court of appeal examined whether the stop was a pretextual stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court first noted the legal principles that control this issue and stated
It is well-established law that “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).[iv]
Additionally, the trooper testified that he obtained his own probable cause for the stop based on his observation of Watson following too closely to another vehicle in violation of Georgia statute. As such, the trooper was authorized to stop Watson for the traffic violation, and even though he had the ulterior motive of conducting a drug investigation, because he had a valid reason for the stop; therefore, the stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment. It should be noted that in this case, the stop would have been permissible based on information he was told by the drug agents and what he heard listening to the radio, however, he did not use that as the basis of his stop, rather he used the traffic violation.
Lastly, the court examined whether the trooper violated the Fourth Amendment by detaining Watson to await the arrival of the K9 unit. The court first discussed the legal principles relevant to this issue and stated
As we stated in Hall, “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.” 351 Ga. App. at 699 (1) (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). However, “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.” Id. at 700 (1) (citations and punctuation omitted).[v]
Thus, after the trooper completed the traffic stop, he needed reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity, for example, illegal drugs, to further detain Watson to await the arrival of K9. Further, reasonable suspicion can be based upon the collective knowledge of multiple officers. In Watson’s case, the trooper was informed by the agents that they suspected Watson had just purchased drugs, and the trooper listened to the agent’s radio traffic during their surveillance of the drug deal as it occurred. The court of appeals stated that this was sufficient to provide the trooper with reasonable suspicion to further detain Watson beyond the normal traffic stop, to await K9.
Thus, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] A22A0772 (Ga. App. Decided August 22, 2022)
[ii] Id. at 1-2
[iii] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 7 (emphasis added)
[v] Id. at 8 (emphasis added)