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Alabama officer’s stop of a Florida driver for a violation of Alabama license tag law was valid

Braddy was pulled over by an Alabama law enforcement officer on Interstate 65 in Saraland, Alabama. Initially the officer saw Braddy react suddenly to the presence of the officer’s marked patrol vehicle.  The officer then observed that Braddy’s license tag was obscured by two bicycles and because the obstruction of an Alabama license is prohibited under an Alabama statute, he was pulled over despite the fact that Braddy had a Florida plate.  During the traffic stop, a drug detection dog alerted to the presence of drugs.  A search discovered cocaine inside the vehicle.  Braddy was charged in federal court with the federal offense of possession with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine and conspiracy to distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§841 and 846.

He challenged the seizure of the evidence arguing this was an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  First, he said the officer lacked probable cause to make the traffic stop because he incorrectly applied Alabama law to Braddy, a nonresident Florida driver, and that the mistake was not objectionably reasonable.  Second, even if the stop was justified and legal, the officer illegally prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion.  Third, the two police dogs that performed dog sniffs on the vehicle did not have a positive alert to justify the search.

The appellate court rejected the Fourth Amendment search and seizure challenge.  As to the initial stop, it concluded that even if the Alabama statute prohibiting partially obstructed vehicle license plates does not apply to nonresident tag, the officer’s interpretation of the Alabama statute was objectively reasonable.  Furthermore, even if the officer was mistaken about the application of the Alabama law, Florida statute §316.605(1) requires the tach to be plainly visible and his license plate was in violation of Florida law.  The officer’s initial stop was lawful and based on probable cause.

Next, the appellate court found that the officer’s initial questions to Braddy about his travel plans and itinerary were ordinary inquiries related to a traffic stop, especially since he was driving on Alabama roads with an obstructed Florida license plate in a car that was not registered to him.  Questions about the address on his driver’s license, which the officer had determined was not correct, and questions about the ownership of the car he was driving, were well within the scope of the traffic stop.   The court also found that the traffic stop was not unlawfully prolonged by the initial sniff of the canine because the drug dog arrived while the officer was still engaged in conducting the routine records check of the traffic stop.  There was no Fourth Amendment violation by the officer’s stop and the subsequent delay.

Braddy presented an expert witness who testified that the handling of the dogs and their behavior was not sufficiently reliable to give the officer’s probable cause to search the vehicle. But the court rejected this argument, finding that the district court’s decision to credit the officer’s testimony over the testimony of Braddy’s expert was not clearly erroneous.  The district court found that the officers were in a better position to observe and judge the actions of their canines because of their proximity at the scene and because of their history of extensive training and familiarity with the canines.  The district court did not err in finding that the drug detection dogs’ alert was sufficiently reliable to provide probable cause for the officers to search the vehicle.   Judge Rosenbaum concurred but dissented because the officer’s observations of the drug dog’s behavior was not based on the objective and articulable facts that are necessary to support a finding of probable cause.

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