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Officer had reasonable suspicion to prolong stop and probable cause to search vehicle

Facts

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On March 2, 2020, Yoel Weisshaus was traveling with a passenger, Ms. Lee, from Oklahoma to Scottsdale, Arizona when he was pulled over in Texas by Officer Teichelman for speeding and displaying an obscured license plate and registration insignia. Teichelman requested to see Weisshaus’ driver’s license and registration and asked Weisshaus to accompany him to his patrol car. Ms. Lee stayed in the vehicle.

While running his license and registration, Teichelman asked Weisshaus questions regarding his travel plans. Weisshaus was unable to provide details as to the length of his stay and hotel accommodations, and stated only that he was helping Ms. Lee move her belongings to New Jersey. Given that Weisshaus had a driver’s license from New Jersey, was unable to give specific answers as to length of stay and hotel accommodations, and was traveling on I-40, a highway that was a known “drug and human trafficking corridor” with a woman “who appeared to be considerably younger with no familial connection,” Officer Teichelman developed a suspicion of criminal activity.

To dispel this suspicion, Teichelman decided to ask Ms. Lee the same questions he asked Weisshaus. Lee was unable to provide details and appeared “nervous, timid, and scared” and was avoiding eye contact and looking at the floorboard. Teichelman’s suspicion of criminal activity elevated, and he asked Weisshaus if he would consent to a search of his vehicle. Weisshaus declined. Teichelman then walked his canine partner, Kobra, around the vehicle to do an open-air sniff. Teichelman asserts that Kobra passively alerted to the scent of narcotics in the vehicle. Weisshaus argues that the dog did not alert because it did not sit, bark, or stop. Teichelman searched Weisshaus’ vehicle. Finding nothing, Teichelman permitted Weisshaus to leave.

On March 2, 2022, Weisshaus filed suit. Teichelman filed a motion for summary judgment asserting qualified immunity, which the district court granted, holding Plaintiff could not establish that Teichelman violated clearly established law. Weisshaus appealed the grant of summary judgment. The 5th affirmed.

Analysis

A. Clearly Established

The court focuses on the state of the law at the time of the incident and whether it provided fair warning to the defendant that his conduct was unconstitutional. See Tolan. The caselaw must establish beyond debate that the officer’s conduct violated then-clearly established law. See Baldwin.

A1. Reasonable Suspicion

Weisshaus first argues that it was clearly established that Teichelman did not have reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop and conduct a dog sniff. 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. See SCOTUS Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015). 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. Once the purpose of a valid traffic stop has been completed and an officer’s initial suspicions have been verified or dispelled, the detention must end unless there is additional reasonable suspicion supported by articulable facts.

If the officer develops reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity during his investigation of the circumstances that originally caused the stop, he may further detain the occupants of the vehicle for a reasonable time while appropriately attempting to dispel this reasonable suspicion. See Andres. Weisshaus has not shown that any constitutional violation was clearly established. It is undisputed that Teichelman questioned Weisshaus while he was seated in the car, still processing his documents. In this questioning, (1) Weisshaus was short with his responses to questions about his travel plans, (2) Weisshaus had a New Jersey driver’s license and was traveling on I-40, a known drug corridor, (3) with a female that appeared to be considerably younger than him, and (4) had no familial relation to him. Weisshaus has not shown that it was clearly established that under similar facts an officer was held to have committed a constitutional violation.

In fact, we have previously found reasonable suspicion where the driver was unable to answer questions as to travel plans and where his story diverged from that of other occupants while traveling on a known drug corridor. (See Smith – we have consistently considered travel along known drug corridors as a relevant—even if not dispositive—piece of the reasonable suspicion puzzle.)

For the same reasons, Weisshaus has failed to show that any continued detention to question Ms. Lee was clearly established as unconstitutional. After questioning Weisshaus, Teichelman questioned Lee with the same general questions on travel itinerary, and she (1) could not provide details as to the trip, (2) appeared nervous, timid, and scared, and (3) failed to make eye contact with him and looked at the floorboard. (See Andres – finding reasonable suspicion where the driver’s untruthful answers, nervousness, and the anonymous tip about carrying drugs created additional reasonable suspicion justifying the continued detention).

A2. Probable Cause

Weisshaus next argues that it was clearly established that Teichelman did not have probable cause to search his vehicle. In evaluating probable cause, we have consistently looked to the totality of the circumstances. Our court has repeatedly affirmed that an alert by a drug-detecting dog provides probable cause to search. See Sanchez-Pena.

Teichelman states that Kobra alerted. Weisshaus argues that the dog did not sit, bark, or stop, and thus did not alert and there was therefore no probable cause to search his vehicle. Even if Teichelman did not have probable cause to search the vehicle, any violation was not clearly established. Evidence of a dog’s satisfactory performance in a certification or training program can itself provide sufficient reason to trust his alert. See SCOTUS Florida v. Harris, U.S., 568 U.S. 237 (2013). Kobra is registered and trained to give passive alerts. Further, our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence does not require drug dogs to abide by a specific and consistent code in signaling their sniffing of drugs to their handlers. See Clayton.

The totality of the circumstances shows that in addition to his questioning of both Weisshaus and Ms. Lee, the lack of familial connection, and the drug highway; Teichelman is trained in highway interdiction, Teichelman routinely patrols I-40 with Kobra, and Kobra is registered and trained to alert to narcotics. Under this set of facts, Weisshaus has not shown that the search of his vehicle was clearly established as unconstitutional.

Weisshaus cites SCOTUS U.S. v Rodriguez, 575 U.S. 348 (2015). Rodriguez was stopped for a traffic infraction. After getting documents and asking questions, the officer issued a warning and returned all documents. At that point, the officer had fully completed everything related to the stop and “took care of all the business.” Despite this, the officer held Rodriguez while he conducted an open-air sniff around the vehicle. The dog alerted to drugs in the vehicle and a search revealed a large bag of methamphetamine. The Supreme Court ultimately remanded the case for the Eighth Circuit to determine whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justified detaining the driver beyond the completion of the initial traffic stop because an officer may not prolong the stop absent reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.

Here, pertinent facts of this case differ from the facts of our case. Unlike in Rodriguez, Teichelman specifically articulated his suspicion on why he suspected that criminal activity was afoot, and those reasons were not dispelled prior to extending the stop and conducting the search. Accordingly, Weisshaus has failed to establish that any constitutional violation was clearly established.

 

https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/22/22-11099.0.pdf