On April 5, 2023, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Williams[i], which serves as excellent review of the law related to handcuffing a driver during a traffic stop.  The relevant facts of Williams are as follows:

Pablo Enriquez and Jason Otis, both deputies with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (the “HCSO”) Street Crimes Unit at the time of Williams’s arrest, testified for the Government. Williams’s attorney did not put on any witnesses. Below are the events of Williams’s traffic stop, detention, arrest, and search, as articulated in the deputies’ testimony.

The goal of the HCSO’s Street Crimes Unit is to serve as a proactive law enforcement unit that detects and deters crime and saturates high crime areas. The unit is made up of both undercover deputies in plain clothes with unmarked cars and uniformed deputies in marked patrolled cars. On May 28, 2020, the evening of Williams’s arrest, Deputy Enriquez was in plain clothes and drove an unmarked car.

Because Deputy Enriquez was undercover and in an unmarked car, if he saw any crime, including traffic infractions, his role was to radio the uniformed units in the area for them to conduct the traffic stop. According to Deputy Enriquez’s testimony, on the evening of May 28, 2020, he saw Williams traveling east on 124th Avenue East, approaching 15th Street North. He observed Williams’s car approach the marked stop sign, fail to stop, run the stop sign, and make a right turn onto 15th Street North. Deputy Enriquez radioed his observations to Deputy Otis, who was a uniformed Street Crimes Unit deputy driving a marked car in the area, as was common practice. He maintained a visual on Williams’s car until Deputy Otis pulled behind the car to initiate the traffic stop. Because Deputy Otis was alone in his patrol car, when Otis and Williams turned into Teresa’s Food Store (the “Convenience Store”), Deputy Enriquez parked across the parking lot in case Deputy Otis needed assistance.

Both Deputy Enriquez and Deputy Otis testified that, upon pulling into the Convenience Store, Williams got out of his car and walked back towards Deputy Otis’s car. Both deputies indicated that, based on their experience, if someone immediately exits their car they are either likely to flee on foot or they do not want the officer near the car or the window for some reason. Deputy Otis testified that Williams appeared to be very nervous and that he decided to detain Williams in handcuffs for safety purposes while he conducted the traffic stop because Otis was alone, Williams was acting nervous, had exited the vehicle, and was distancing himself from it. Deputy Otis told Williams he was going to detain him and grabbed his right wrist to put it behind his back and handcuff him, at which point Williams attempted to flee on foot; Deputy Otis grabbed his shirt, and Williams and Otis fell to the ground. Deputy Otis testified that Deputy Enriquez—whom he did not know was on the scene—then assisted him in subduing Williams and arresting him for resisting arrest. Otis then shined his flashlight into the car to make sure there was nobody else in the vehicle who could harm him.

Deputy Otis conducted a search of Williams subsequent to his arrest. He found a blue package containing what he suspected—based on his experience—was cannabis. After the search, Deputy Otis took Williams to the back of his patrol car. On the way to the patrol car, Deputy Otis testified that Williams was very nervous, saying that he did not want to go back to prison, and asked Deputy Otis to go get his phone from the car and let him call his mom and his girlfriend. According to Otis, he went up to the still-running vehicle, opened the door, and turned off the ignition. He smelled what he believed to be cannabis. He saw Williams’s phone on the floor, plugged in to a charging cable. And in plain view on the floor mat, right next to Williams’s phone, was a firearm.[ii]

Ultimately, Williams was charged with a federal firearms violation.  He filed a motion to suppress and argued that his stop, his attempted handcuffing, and the search of his vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment.  The district court disagreed and denied the motion to suppress.  Williams appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The first issue was whether the officers lawfully stopped Williams.  The minimum legal justification for stopping a vehicle is reasonable suspicion.  Here, Deputy Enriquez testified that he saw Williams fail to stop at a stop sign.  The court of appeals noted

A police officer may lawfully detain someone without a warrant if he has reasonable suspicion that the person has participated in or is about to participate in criminal activity, which includes minor traffic violations. United States v. Campbell, 26 F.4th 860, 880 (11th Cir. 2022) (en banc), cert. denied, 143 S. Ct. 95, 214 L. Ed. 2d 19 (2022).[iii]

Since the deputy credibly testified that he observed Williams run a stop sign, a traffic violation, the court upheld the stop as reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The second issue is whether Deputy Otis violated the Fourth Amendment by turning the encounter into a de-facto arrest, without probable cause, when he attempted to handcuff Williams.  A de-facto arrest occurs when an officer, during the course of a lawful investigative detention (or traffic stop), exceeds the permissible scope by becoming too intrusive, such that a reasonable person in the situation would believe they were under arrest.  Usually this occurs when an officer detains a person for an unreasonable length of time, too intrusively (handcuffs, back of police car, extended time) or both.

The court of appeals discussed the fact that “officer safety is a legitimate and weighty” concern on traffic stops, noting that

Our courts have repeatedly recognized the danger inherent in traffic stops, . . . and the concomitant need to exercise unquestioned command of the situation.” United States v. Gibbs, 917 F.3d 1289, 1297 (11th Cir. 2019) (abrogated on other grounds by Campbell, 26 F.4th at 880 n.15.)[iv]

Thus, since traffic stops are known to be dangerous for police officers, the courts allow officers to exercise control over people involved in the stops, when warranted based upon the totality of the circumstances.  The court stated

[W]hen the totality of circumstances indicate that an encounter has become too intrusive to be classified as a brief seizure, [or detention,] the encounter is an arrest and probable cause is required.” United States v. Espinosa-Guerra, 805 F.2d 1502, 1506 (11th Cir. 1986). A reviewing court must give due weight to the officer’s experience when examining the totality of the circumstances. United States v. Briggman, 931 F.2d 705, 709 (11th Cir. 1991). In determining whether a detention amounts to a de facto arrest, we consider, in relevant part, the law enforcement purposes served by the detention and the scope and intrusiveness of the detention. United States v. Acosta, 363 F.3d 1141, 1146 (11th Cir. 2004). Handcuffing does not automatically convert a Terry stop into a de facto arrest requiring probable cause. United States v. Hastamorir, 881 F.2d 1551, 1556 (11th Cir. 1989). Notably, we have “long concluded that it is reasonable for officers to use handcuffs to protect themselves during an investigative detention.” Gray ex rel. Alexander v. Bostic, 458 F.3d 1295, 1306 (11th Cir. 2006).[v]

Therefore, if an officer can articulate the need to handcuff a driver during a traffic stop, based on specific facts that establish an officer safety concern, it is reasonable and will not automatically convert the encounter into a de-facto arrest.

The court then examined the relevant facts of Williams’s case.  Deputy Otis testified that, based on his experience, when people quickly exit their vehicle during a traffic stop, there is a high likelihood they will flee on foot.  The deputy also testified that Williams appeared very nervous and tried to distance himself from the vehicle.  Deputy Otis also did not realize that Deputy Enriquez, who was in an unmarked, undercover vehicle, had stopped to assist if needed, so he believed he was alone on this stop.  Based on these facts, Deputy Otis decided to handcuff Williams for safety reasons.  The court of appeals held

Deputy Otis’s attempt to handcuff Williams and detain him for the duration of the traffic stop was a valid detention and not a de facto arrest.[vi]

When Williams resisted Deputy Otis’s attempt to handcuff him, this provided the deputy with probable cause to arrest him for resisting or obstructing an officer under Fla. Stat. § 843.02.  Thus, the search incident to arrest was lawful.

Lastly, the court examined whether the search of Williams’s vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment.  The court concluded the search was lawful for two reasons.  The first justification for the search was that Williams consented to the search.  Williams asked the deputy several times to get his cell phone from the vehicle so he could make a phone call.  The deputy testified that when he entered the vehicle to retrieve the phone, the gun was in plain view next to the phone.

The second justification for the search of the vehicle was the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.  The court stated

If a car is (1) readily mobile and (2) probable cause exists to believe it contains contraband, a warrantless search does not violate the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Watts, 329 F.3d 1282, 1285 (quoting Pennsylvania v. Labron, 518 U.S. 938, 940, 116 S. Ct. 2485, 2487, 135 L. Ed. 2d 1031 (1996) (per curiam)).[vii]

In Williams’s case, when Deputy Otis opened the car door to turn off the ignition and retrieve the phone, he smelled the odor of marijuana.  This provided the deputy probable cause to believe it contained contraband, and the fact the vehicle was running shows it was readily mobile.  The court stated that the seizure of marijuana from Williams’s person and the smell of marijuana in the car provided probable cause to search the vehicle under the automobile exception.

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.

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Citations

[i] No. 22-10426 (11th Cir. Decided April 5, 2023 Non-argument)

[ii] Id. at 2-5

[iii] Id. at 8-9 (emphasis added)

[iv] Id. at 9

[v] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)

[vi] Id. at 10

[vii] Id. at 11-12 (emphasis added)

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