CA4: “Is there anything illegal in the vehicle” didn’t extend traffic stop

“Is there anything illegal in the vehicle” didn’t extend this traffic stop. United States v. Buzzard, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 17518 (4th Cir. June 11, 2021):

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, we agree with the district court that Dawson’s question related to officer safety and thus related to the traffic stop’s mission. Dawson was outnumbered, and he asked the question because of “the time of night and the high drug area, Mr. Martin’s history and Mr. Martin’s behavior.” J.A. 158. Given the totality of the circumstances, it makes sense that he needed to know more about what Buzzard and Martin had in the car.

It’s true that the question “Is there anything illegal in the vehicle?” could be interpreted more broadly than one worded slightly differently (for example, “Is there anything dangerous in the vehicle?” or “Are there weapons in the vehicle?”). But given the importance of officer safety and the Supreme Court’s repeated recognition that “[t]raffic stops are ‘especially fraught with danger to police officers,'” Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 356 (quoting Johnson, 555 U.S. at 330), we decline to require such laser-like precision from an officer asking a single question in these circumstances.


In any event, Dawson’s question didn’t extend the stop by even a second. In arguing that the question unlawfully prolonged the stop, Buzzard and Martin again rely on Rodriguez. Prior to deciding Rodriguez, the Supreme Court held that a dog sniff conducted during a lawful traffic stop doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. See Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 408, 125 S. Ct. 834, 160 L. Ed. 2d 842 (2005). In Rodriguez, the Court considered “whether the Fourth Amendment tolerates a dog sniff conducted after completion of a traffic stop.” 575 U.S. at 350 (emphasis added). The Court said no, holding that: “[A] police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures. A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket for the violation.” Id. at 350-51 (cleaned up).

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