December 2, 2022

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Appeals Court Reminds Cops They Can’t Create Their Own Exigency To Justify A Warrantless Search

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from the small-Constitutional-violations-are-still-violations dept

A case involving a DUI stop that somehow morphed into the search of a passenger has earned a couple of cops a rebuke from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and a couple of handy reminders in a precedential decision that will make it that much tougher for law enforcement officers in this circuit to get away with stuff like this in the future.

Here’s how the stop unfolded, as recounted in the Third Circuit decision [PDF]:

Around 2:00 a.m. on February 23, 2019, Philadelphia Police Officers Lance Cannon and Daniel Gonzalez were patrolling North Philadelphia’s 35th District, an area both officers described as “very violent.” They saw a two-door pickup truck roll through a stop sign and fail to signal a turn. After they pulled the truck over, Officer Cannon approached the truck on the driver’s side and Gonzalez approached on the passenger’s side. Three people were in the truck: a driver, a front seat passenger, and, in the backseat, Jamel Hurtt.

The driver and front seat passenger both rolled down their windows. As Cannon collected the license, registration, and keys from the driver, the officers smelled alcohol. The front seat passenger was heavily intoxicated and voluble, and Hurtt, from behind, attempted to calm and quiet him. When Cannon asked the intoxicated passenger for identification, Hurtt volunteered his as well. The officers asked the driver to step out for a sobriety test. He complied and left the door open as he got out of the truck. Uninvited and without apparent justification, Cannon then “physically [went] into [the truck], partially put[ting his] body into the cabin of the truck” through the open door. He eventually climbed further into the truck, placing both knees on the driver’s seat. During the subsequent suppression hearing, he explained that he did so for the purpose of “engag[ing]” with the passengers.

It’s that last bit that turned this from a routine traffic stop into a couple of rights violations. Those rights violations led to the discovery of a gun the back seat passenger had tucked in his waistband. Those criminal charges led to a suppression hearing which led to this appeal… and a reminder that traffic stops are governed by the Supreme Court’s Rodriguez decision, which limits how much unrelated stuff cops can do while addressing the matter at hand.

In this case, the matter at hand was the supposedly drunken driver. But the field sobriety test showed the driver was under the legal limit. While one officer was performing the duties related to the stop, the other officer was ordering passengers out of the car and entering the vehicle without consent. The driver (despite having a suspended license) and the drunk passenger were allowed to drive away. Hurtt, who had been patted down by Officer Cannon — the officer who decided he needed to enter the vehicle while the other officer was actually doing traffic stop stuff.

The court reminds Officer Cannon that the Supreme Court’s ruling says officers must remain “on-mission.” If other suspicion develops during the course of this, officers can extend the investigation. What they absolutely can’t do is put themselves in danger to create a situation where further law enforcement intrusion is necessary.

Rodriguez reasoned that “‘safety precautions taken in order to facilitate’ investigation of other crimes are not justified as part of a routine traffic stop.” Therefore, an officer cannot create a safety concern while off-mission and then rely upon that concern to justify a detour from the basic mission of the traffic stop. The limitations of the Fourth Amendment simply do not tolerate intrusions stemming from a detour from a lawful inquiry that is justified only by an exigency which police themselves have created.

The court notes that the stop occurring in an alleged “high crime area” doesn’t change the constitutional equation. What changed this from a good stop to a bad stop was the officer’s decision to enter the stopped vehicle, which resulted in an unconstitutional delay because it took the other officer “off mission.”

It is uncontested that the initial “mission” of the traffic stop was the DUI investigation of the driver of the truck. While Gonzalez conducted the on-mission field sobriety test, Cannon entered the truck and kneeled on the front seat, putting himself in a very vulnerable position. Consequently, Gonzalez had to interrupt—indeed he stopped—his attempt to determine the sobriety of the driver for the purpose of ensuring Cannon’s safety. At that point, neither officer had reasonable suspicion to search Hurtt. Without reasonable suspicion, an inquiry resulting in an extension of the traffic stop is unlawful if not related to the mission (i.e., offmission).

The government argued this was a minor interruption, but the Appeals Court reiterates the findings of the Supreme Court decision: it’s not the length of the violation that matters. It’s that the violation occurred.

Moreover, as should be obvious from our discussion, we are not persuaded by the government’s argument that the Fourth Amendment intrusion resulting from Gonzalez going off-mission was permissible because the off-mission conduct was de minimis. We need only address this argument briefly as Rodriguez clearly forecloses it. In Rodriguez, the Court held that even de minimis extensions of a traffic stop for “unrelated inquiries,” such as checking on Cannon’s off-mission activity, are unlawful.

In conclusion, Hurtt’s rights were violated:

Here, Officers Cannon and Gonzalez did what Rodriguez prohibits. Officer Cannon created a safety concern while off-mission from the purpose of the original traffic stop and thereby prolonged Hurtt’s detention. Since the disputed evidence was only uncovered after the officers went off-mission, the officers wrongly extended the traffic stop and violated Hurtt’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

That reverses the trial court’s refusal to suppress the evidence. And with that evidence now gone, the conviction is vacated. Rights are rights. Violating them quickly doesn’t make them any less violated.

Filed Under: 3rd circuit, 4th amendment, daniel gonzalez, exigent circumstances, jamel hurtt, lance cannon, philadelphia, warrantless search

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