D.R.I.: Running a criminal background check during a traffic stop is reasonably part of the stop; RS not required

Defendant’s car was stopped because the passenger didn’t have his seatbelt on. A criminal background check was run, and it was part of the stop and did not require separate justification. That was enough to order defendant out of the car. United States v. Sanders, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 50816 (D. R.I. April 3, 2017):

The first issue is whether the BCI/III criminal background check was reasonably related to the mission of the traffic stop or whether it required some additional justification. When determining the permissible duration of a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment, courts must consider the “mission” of the traffic stop as well as an officer’s need to “attend to related safety concerns.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609, 1614, 191 L. Ed. 2d 492 (2015) (quoting Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407, 125 S. Ct. 834, 160 L. Ed. 2d 842 (2005)). A traffic stop may not last longer than what is reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop, including addressing the traffic violation that warranted the stop. Id. Police officers may, however, conduct “certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop,” as long as the stop is not prolonged or measurably extended. Id. at 1615. The Supreme Court in Rodriguez distinguished measures taken in the interest of “highway and officer safety” from those measures taken “to detect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular,” and held that the duration of the stop and the purpose of the extension are both critical in determining whether additional justification is required under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 1612, 1616.

Even prior to Rodriguez, courts have recognized the distinction between a criminal background check performed as part of a “routine computer check,” and a background check performed after the officer addressed the objective of the traffic stop. See United States v. Boyce, 351 F.3d 1102, 1106, 1107 (11th Cir. 2003) (stating that “out of interest for the officer’s safety … officers may permissibly prolong a detention while waiting for the results of a criminal history check that is part of the officer’s routine traffic investigation”).

While the First Circuit has not confronted this particular issue, most courts that have addressed the question have held that police officers are permitted to conduct criminal background checks in the interest of officer safety without demonstrating additional justification under the Fourth Amendment. See, e.g., United States v. Purcell, 236 F.3d 1274, 1278 (11th Cir. 2001) (“The request for criminal histories as part of a routine computer check is justified for officer safety”); United States v. Holt, 264 F.3d 1215, 1221 (10th Cir. 2001), overruled on other grounds by United States v. Stewart, 473 F.3d 1265, 1269 (10th Cir. 2007) (“The justification for detaining a motorist to obtain a criminal history check is, in part, officer safety.”); United States v. McRae, 81 F.3d 1528, 1535 n.6 (10th Cir. 1996) (“[t]riple I checks are run largely to protect the officer” and “the almost simultaneous computer check of a person’s criminal record, along with his or her license and registration, is reasonable and hardly intrusive”); United States v. Crain, 33 F.3d 480, 485 (5th Cir. 1994). And while the Seventh Circuit did not ultimately adopt this approach in a case brought 20 years ago, it acknowledged “support for the argument that requesting a criminal history check is a reasonable, constitutional part of all or most traffic stops.” United States v. Finke, 85 F.3d 1275, 1280 (7th Cir. 1996). The court stated that it would have allowed this approach if “technology permit[ted] criminal record requests to be conducted reasonably contemporaneously with the license and warrant checks normally solicited.” Id.

The Defendant relies on a Ninth Circuit case which held that, when the officer has already completed the mission of the traffic stop, additional criminal background checks and investigatory steps are not permissible because the stop becomes unreasonably extended. United States v. Evans, 786 F.3d 779, 787, 788 (9th Cir. 2015) (noting that the criminal background check almost doubled the overall duration of the traffic stop, the K-9 drug sniff was completely unrelated to the traffic violation, and both steps were undertaken after the officer had completed all tasks related to the traffic infraction).

While Evans clearly puts some limits on how far officers may go in conducting background checks, those limits are dependent on the context of the stop. In Evans, the purpose of the stop was completed before the check; here, by contrast, the stop had just commenced. Both troopers testified that each BCI/III check took approximately ten to fifteen seconds total because the results of the background checks came back almost instantaneously. (Hr’g Tr. 18:1-3, 9-14, 110:13-15.) Consistent with the holdings noted above, this Court finds that the criminal background checks performed by Trooper O’Donnell during the traffic stop on April 30, 2016 did not extend the detention beyond the time needed to address the reason for the stop; moreover, the checks were done in the interest of officer safety. Therefore, the checks did not unreasonably [*13] extend the duration of the stop and required no additional justification; they were permissible under the Fourth Amendment. See Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. at 1616.

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