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Telling another officer you are not going to write a ticket doesn’t end the traffic stop

Facts

In 2018, Richmond Police Officer Larry Ganey observed Berenice Del Angel’s car following another vehicle too closely and traveling over the speed limit while on a major highway, so Ganey initiated a traffic stop.

After learning Del Angel needed an interpreter, Ganey called Officer Carlos Arredondo on the phone to serve as a translator. Ganey told Arredondo that he was “not gonna write her a ticket or anything.” Ganey then learned that she did not have a driver’s license and had no outstanding warrants but had been arrested for theft.

After consenting to a search of the vehicle, Ganey performed a 25 minute search, which revealed a hidden compartment in the trunk with 61 kilogram bundles, four of which contained heroin.

She was convicted of possession with intent to distribute heroin and sentenced to 121 months in BOP. On appeal, she argued the mission of the traffic stop ended when Ganey told Arredondo that he was not going to write a ticket so the subsequent consent was invalid. 5th affirmed.

Analysis

We said in Brigham that the stopping of a vehicle and detention of its occupants constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent and our own precedent, routine traffic stops, whether justified by probable cause or a reasonable suspicion of a violation, are treated as Terry stops.

The legality of such investigatory stops is tested in two parts. First, we examine whether the officer’s action was justified at its inception, and then inquire whether the officer’s subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop. Del Angel only challenges the second prong here.

The statement to Arredondo represented Ganey’s subjective intentions to exercise discretion and not issue a ticket during the stop. The fact that he subjectively thought, or even articulated, an intent not to ticket her is irrelevant here.

Instead, we must consider only the objective evidence of reasonableness during the stop given the totality of the circumstances. In conducting that analysis, courts inquire whether the officer’s subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop.

In Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic stop context is determined by the seizure’s mission—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns.

And elaborating on what the “related safety concerns” might be, the court continued:
Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission includes ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop.

Typically such inquiries involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. These checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.

Each and every action Ganey took comported with that mission. He called a translator and kept her stopped for three minutes and thirty seconds while reaching the translator and resolving minor technical difficulties related to that process. He then learned that Del Angel did not have a driver’s license, which in and of itself provided independent probable cause to detain her for longer, and even to arrest her.

Del Angel analogizes the facts of this case to cases where an officer learns that a driver had not committed the suspected traffic violation that had justified the initial stop. The factual distinction between the present case and these cases is self-evident—in those cases the constitutional grounds for the stop dissipated when the officer realized that the suspected, illegal act had not occurred, meaning that the officers in those cases did not have a choice whether to issue a ticket.

For the foregoing reasons we affirm the district court’s denial of Del Angel’s motion to suppress.

 

https://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/20/20-20258.0.pdf