Third Circuit Court of Appeals: Unnecessary 23-minute Extension of Traffic Stop Requires Suppression of Gun and Marijuana 

 Zak Goldstein - Criminal Lawyer

Zak Goldstein - Criminal Lawyer

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has decided the case of United States v. Clark, holding that police violated Clark’s rights by questioning him and the driver of the car he was in for 23 minutes about subjects unrelated to the initial purpose of a traffic stop. The Third Circuit held that the trial court properly granted Clark’s motion to suppress a gun and marijuana found in the car because police impermissibly extended the stop for longer than was necessary to investigate the motor vehicle code violations that led to the stop. 

The Facts of Clark

Clark is an excellent example of how police body camera footage dramatically changes the analysis of routine police searches and seizures. In Clark, police in New Jersey stopped a minivan because the driver was using his cell phone while driving, did not have his headlights on, and had an obstructed view. The police asked to see the paperwork for the vehicle. The driver handed over his license and insurance card, but he could not find the van’s registration. He said the van belonged to his mother, and he offered to call his mother and ask her if she knew where to find the registration. The officer told the driver that the stop was for the three traffic violations and asked whether his license was suspended. The driver said it was not. The officer then asked if the van belonged to the driver’s mother, and the driver confirmed that it did. 

After speaking with the driver, the officer returned to his police car to run the paperwork. He confirmed that the driver’s license was valid, that the driver had a criminal record for drug charges, there were no outstanding arrest warrants for the driver, and the car was registered to a woman with the same last name and address as the driver. The officer then went back to the van and asked the driver about his criminal record. He asked whether the driver had been arrested, for what he had been arrested, and when was the last time he had been arrested. The driver confirmed he had been arrested for drug charges, most recently in 2006. The officer continued questioning the driver as to such things as where he was coming from, whether he and any warrants, and again how many times he had been arrested. 

After questioning the driver for a few minutes, mostly about his criminal record, the officer asked the driver to step out of the vehicle. The driver did so, and the officer then began asking him about Clark, the passenger. After asking a few questions about Clark, the officer walked over to the passenger’s side of the van and asked similar questions of Clark. The officer then returned to the driver and accused him of lying. He then said he smelled marijuana coming from the passenger’s side and asked Clark to get out of the car. Clark complied. The officers told him to turn around for a pat-down, and Clark then told the officers that he had a gun. The officers searched Clark and recovered a gun and a small amount of marijuana. 

Body camera footage showed that police had questioned the two men for about 23 minutes. Had the footage not been recorded, officers likely would have been able to describe the questioning as a “brief encounter,” and Clark would have had much more difficulty establishing what happened that led to the search.

The Motion to Suppress 

After police arrested Clark, the United States Attorney’s Office adopted the case. A federal grand jury indicted Clark for possession of a weapon as a convicted felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 922(g)(1). He filed a motion to suppress the gun and the marijuana, arguing that police had impermissibly prolonged the stop beyond its original purpose without the necessary reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The District Court granted the motion to suppress, finding that police had no real basis for extensively questioning the driver about his criminal history and that the officer had no reasonable suspicion to investigate other criminal matters beyond the traffic violations. 

The Federal Appeal 

After the District Court granted the motion to suppress, the United States appealed to the Third Circuit. The Third Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision on appeal. The Court noted that even when a stop may be lawful at its inception, as the parties agreed in this case, a stop may become illegal as it progresses. In Rodriguez v. United States, the United States Supreme Court recently held that an initially-valid traffic stop may become unlawful when it lasts longer than is necessary for police to complete the mission of the stop. The authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the mission are or reasonably should have been completed. In order to prolong a stop beyond that point, a police officer must have acquired additional reasonable suspicion or probable cause during the investigation to justify additional investigation and a lengthening of the stop. 

When police pull a suspect over for a traffic stop, the mission of the stop is to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and address related safety concerns. This could include deciding whether to issue a ticket, checking the driver’s license and for any outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the vehicle’s registration and insurance. These tasks are all part of ensuring roadway safety. Police may also take steps that are reasonably related to officer safety. However, not all investigation during a traffic stop qualifies as part of the traffic stop’s mission. For example, extensive questioning of the occupants of a vehicle, as occurred here, requires independent reasonable suspicion beyond the observation of a motor vehicle code violation. 

Here, the extensive questioning of the driver regarding his criminal record and where he was coming from had nothing to do with the purpose of the stop. The questions were entirely unrelated to whether he had a driver’s license, insurance, and registration, and they had nothing to do with whether he was lawfully in possession of the car. The driver was cooperative with the officers, he provided proof of insurance and a valid driver’s license, he did not have any outstanding arrest warrants, and the police were able to confirm that the car belonged to the driver’s mother. Accordingly, the police had no basis for believing that the driver should not have been driving the car. Once police confirmed that all of the paperwork for the car was valid, they were required to either issue a ticket or let the car go. They had no authority to then turn to Clark, the passenger, and question him. By doing so, they unconstitutionally extended the length of the stop. Therefore, the District Court properly granted the motion to suppress the gun and the marijuana. This is a great case for individual privacy rights as the Third Circuit has now held that even a relatively short 23-minute stop can violate a defendant’s rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizures.

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