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Ninth Circuit Holds Prolonging Traffic Stop Without Reasonable Cause Unlawful

On May 20, 2015, the Ninth Circuit court of appeals held that it was unlawful for law enforcement to prolong a traffic stop for the purpose of general crime detection without reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred.

Jailhouse informants told Drug Enforcement Agency officials that James Evans routinely transported methamphetamine from California to Nevada. Canine-certified Washoe County Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Zirkle was informed of this and asked to stop James's vehicle and develop his own probable cause to bust Evans so that the informants would be protected. Zirkle waited for the car, saw Evans commit a minor traffic violation and pulled him over.

Zirkle ran a records check on Evans, passenger September McConnell and the car. It came back clean. He then requested an ex-felon registration check to verify that Evans was properly registered as required by Nevada law. That check took an extra eight minutes and also came back clean. He issued Evans a warning and told him he was “good to go."

Evans began to leave, but Zirkle called him back for a more questions, asking whether he had contraband in the car and requesting consent to search it. Evans refused consent. Zirkle then had his dog sniff the exterior of the car and the dog alerted to the passenger door. Some drugs were found between the driver’s and passenger's seat.

Evans and McConnell were charged with federal drug violations. They filed motions to suppress the evidence which were granted. The U.S. appealed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court had recently addressed a similar situation in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015), holding that it was unlawful to prolong a traffic stop longer than is necessary to “address the traffic violation that warranted the stop" and "attend to related safety concerns. Authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are--or reasonably should have been--completed."

The Ninth Circuit held that tasks not related to the traffic mission--such as ex-felon registration checks and dog sniffs--are "therefore unlawful if they ’add time' to the stop, and are not otherwise supported by independent reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing." Evidence developed due to such an unlawfully prolonged traffic stop would have to be suppressed.

Because the district court had not made "findings of historical fact;" the "inference drawn from those facts" critical to resolving the parties' dispute over whether there was such an independent reasonable suspicion, and the Ninth Circuit vacated the order suppressing the evidence and remanded the case for it to do so. See: United States v. McConnell, 786 F.3d 779 (9th Cir. 2015).

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Related legal case

United States v. McConnell