Can 20 seconds of questioning unlawfully extend a traffic stop? | United States v. Lujan

On October 25, 2017, a police officer was traveling in the left lane on Interstate 24 in Winchester, Tennessee. He noticed a large passenger van in the right lane with a paper temporary license tag. The officer could not make out the state of origin and the temporary tag number because the paper was inside a ziplock bag.

The officer pulled over the vehicle. What was clear is that the officer could read the temporary tag and he determined it had the required information on it when he walked up to the van and prior to speaking with the driver.

The officer then asked the defendant a series of questions over a couple of minutes. He asked where the defendant was headed, where he was coming from, asked for defendant’s identification, asked why the defendant took the exit, and asked why the defendant was nervous.

The officer then asked if the people in the van were legal and the defendant said, “Yes.” The officer asked the same question again, and the defendant again said, “Yes.” Officer said, “Why are you nervous, then?” The defendant then admitted he knew the occupants were “illegal.”

In Rodriguez the Supreme Court held “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.” However, Rodriguez is not focused on vaguely assessing time, measuring it against arbitrary notions of what constitutes promptness. Rather, Rodriguez requires that courts look at the officer’s actions and determine whether he inevitably prolonged the stop beyond its original mission.

The Court recognized that the line questioning was brief, lasting twenty seconds at most. And although the interrogation unfolded quickly, it “measurably extend[ed]” the defendant’s stop. In engaging in this line of inquiry, the officer detoured from his traffic mission and “embarked on another sustained course of the investigation.” The unrelated questioning made up the “bulk” of what should have otherwise been only a brief detention.

The Court found that the officer measurably extended his stop by engaging in unrelated questioning (even if for only 20 seconds).

Read the full opinion here:

Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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