On December 22, 2022, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Robles[i], which serves as instructive regarding the scope of a traffic stop and consent to search.  The relevant facts of Robles, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

On June 20, 2019, Trooper Meeks stopped a maroon Nissan pickup truck that had crossed over the fog line. As he approached the vehicle, he observed a box in the back seat covered by a blanket. Trooper Meeks requested Robles’ license and had her exit the vehicle. Robles was placed in Trooper Meeks’ patrol vehicle where she informed him that she and Cardona were in Arkansas for a week-long visit to see Cardona’s ill sister. This information was inconsistent with the rental agreement, which indicated the pickup was to be returned in two days. Robles attempted to explain, stating she planned on leaving Cardona in Arkansas. When Trooper Meeks inquired about the box in the backseat, Robles stated it was a suitcase. Trooper Meeks asked if he could search the suitcase and Robles consented. Before Trooper Meeks spoke with Cardona, Robles stopped him and told him that they had acquired the suitcase from an unspecified person and were transporting it to someone else.

Cardona told Trooper Meeks that she and Robles were in Arkansas to visit a friend for a day or two. Cardona initially refused Trooper Meeks’ request to search the vehicle. He followed up by asking, “It’s not okay?” Cardona’s answer was unclear, basically informing Trooper Meeks that she had nothing illegal and that the only drug in the pickup was her medication. Trooper Meeks informed Cardona that her answer was not entirely responsive, and again inquired “is it okay for me to search this truck?” Cardona then responded “yes.” In the ensuing search, Trooper Meeks discovered methamphetamine, which Robles unsuccessfully moved to suppress.[ii]

Robles filed a motion to suppress which the district court denied.  She pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute under federal law and reserved the right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress.  She then filed a timely appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, Robles argued that (1) the trooper exceeded the permissible scope of the stop by questioning her and the passenger regarding the suitcase, and (2) the consent was not free and voluntary, and as such, the motion to suppress should have been granted.

The court of appeals first examined whether the trooper exceeded the permissible scope of the traffic stop by his questioning of Robles and the passenger.  The court discussed the law relevant to this issue and stated

During a traffic stop based upon probable cause, a law enforcement officer is “entitled to conduct an investigation ‘reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the interference in the first place.'” United States v. Bloomfield, 40 F.3d 910, 915 (8th Cir. 1994) (en banc) (citation omitted). Such “investigative detention must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop. Similarly, the investigative methods employed should be the least intrusive means reasonably available to verify or dispel the officer’s suspicion in a short period of time.” United States v. Willis, 967 F.2d 1220, 1224 (8th Cir. 1992) (quoting Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 500, 103 S. Ct. 1319, 75 L. Ed. 2d 229 (1983)).[iii]

The court then noted that during the course of the stop, the trooper asked Robles for her driver’s license, asked about her destination and purpose, and directed her to sit inside his patrol vehicle.

The court then stated that the evidence on records showed that the trooper “proceeded expeditiously” during the stop and there was “no indication” that the trooper “caused any unreasonable delay.”[iv]  As such, the court of appeals held that the trooper did not unreasonably expand the scope of the stop.

However, the court of appeals also noted that, even if the trooper extended the stop, the extension was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment because the trooper developed reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity.

The court discussed various circumstances that may give rise to reasonable suspicion and stated

Even if the stop had been extended, as Robles argues, Trooper Meeks had a permissible basis to extend the stop at the time of its extension. See United States v. Magallon, 984 F.3d 1263, 1278 (8th Cir. 2021) (citations 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.”). Circumstances that may give rise to reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop include: “(1) unusual driving behavior, (2) attempts to evade officers, (3) indirect or incomplete answers to officer questions, (4) nervousness and lack of eye contact, and (5) seeming implausibilities and inconsistencies in the responses to [an officer’s] routine questions about travel plans.” United States v. Callison, 2 F.4th 1128, 1132 (8th Cir. 2021)[v]

In Robles’ case, there were three important facts that the court observed that gave rise to the existence of reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity.  First, the responses from Robles and the passenger to the trooper’s question regarding travel plans were inconsistent with each other and inconsistent with the vehicle rental agreement.  Specifically, the rental agreement showed that the vehicle was to be returned in two days, yet Robles said they were visiting the passenger’s ill sister for a week.  The passenger stated they were visiting a friend for a day or two.  Second, the Robles stated they obtained the suitcase from an unspecified person to deliver to another person.  Third, the trooper observed that Robles and the passenger were nervous.  Based upon the totality of the circumstances regarding the three facts above, the court of appeals held that the trooper had reasonable suspicion to further detain Robles and the passenger for additional investigation.

The other issue examined by the court of appeals was whether the consent to search the vehicle was free and voluntary.  The court first outlined the relevant legal principles and stated

Voluntariness is a question of fact to be determined from all the circumstances,” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 248-49, 93 S. Ct. 2041, 36 L. Ed. 2d 854 (1973), which we review for clear error. United States v. LeBeau, 867 F.3d 960, 970 (8th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). In assessing whether consent was voluntary, we consider the following non-exclusive factors: “(1) the individual’s age and mental ability; (2) whether the individual was intoxicated or under the influence of drugs; (3) whether the individual was informed of [his] Miranda rights; and (4) whether the individual was aware, through prior experience, of the protections that the legal system provides for suspected criminals.” United States v. Gastelum, 11 F.4th 898, 904 (8th Cir. 2021) (quoting United States v. Carr, 895 F.3d 1083, 1089 (8th Cir. 2018)).[vi]

First, the court noted that Robles, who provided voluntary consent to search, tried to rely upon the passenger’s initial refusal to grant consent to search.  The court stated this was “unavailing” as she cannot assert the passenger’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.  Second, the court noted that it was reasonable for the trooper to further question the passenger for clarification regarding her answer to his request for consent because her answer was ambiguous.  Lastly, the court noted that there was no indication that either Robles or the passenger was impaired or lacked the mental capacity to consent, or that either was subjected to coercion.  As such the court of appeals found that the district court did not commit “clear error” in finding that the consent was voluntary.

Therefore, 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] No. 22-1178 (8th Cir.  Decided December 22, 2022 Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 1-3

[iii] Id. at 3-4 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 4-5 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 6 (emphasis added)

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