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No fourth amendment violation where a traffic stop did not exceed the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made

 

In U.S. v Vargas the defendant was charged with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and possession of cocaine after Alabama law enforcement officers discovered cocaine and methamphetamine in Vargas’ vehicle. Vargas filed a motion to suppress on the grounds that Vargas’ traffic stop that led to the discovery of the drugs violated Fourth amendment.

Here, Alabama law enforcement officer pulled over the defendant for following too close and failing to maintain its lane. The driver immediately admitted that he did not have a driver’s license. The officer asked him to come back to the officer’s car where the officer asked him routine questions about where he was going. After about three minutes the officer informed him that he was issuing him a warning for following too close. He continued to ask defendant some questions to complete the warning. He then approached the passenger to determine whether he could operate the vehicle. When the passenger said he did not have a license, the officer spent another 12 minutes working with the two in an attempt to determine how to safely and legally get the car moved. About 18 minutes into the traffic stop and 15 minutes after the enforcement officer informed he was issuing a warning, the officer asked the defendant for consent to search the vehicle and the defendant consented. The search turned up the drugs hidden in the vehicle.

The defendant contended on appeal that the length of the traffic stop violated the fourth amendment. The court cited the Supreme court’s opinion in Rodriguez v United States which states as a general matter a traffic stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made is a violation of the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.

The defendant argued his stop was analogous to Rodriguez because the officer completed the matter for which the stop was made at the time he said he was issuing a warning. He contends that the officer continued the stop for another 15 minutes rendering the detention unconstitutional.

The court rejected this argument because it found the officer did not complete his duties between the time the stop was made and the time the defendant consented to the search. The stop was for tailgating and in the course of permissible ordinary inquiries he discovered that the defendant did not have a driver’s license so he could not legally operate the vehicle. In an attempt to find someone who could, the officer asked if the passenger had a driver’s license. But the passenger did not have one. He continued in an attempt to get the vehicle off the side of the interstate.

All of the officer’s actions were done in the lawful discharge of his duties, and his actions were part of the traffic mission. After he discovered neither man had a driver’s license, the officer asked for permission to search the vehicle. Unlike the driver in Rodriguez, the defendant here consented to the search. The fact that the officer had informed the defendant he would be issued a warning was irrelevant because under state law the officer had a duty not to allow either defendant who were unlicensed to drive the car. The prolonged stop was not a federal violation of the fourth amendment right to free from illegal search and seizure because the extended stop was out of a desire to search the car but because both occupants could not lawfully drive it away.