As a Passenger, Did the Police Get You Out of the Car Without Any Reason?

Submitted by New Jersey Criminal Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark.

Were you ever a passenger in a motor vehicle the with the police conducting a motor vehicle stop. Did the police get you out of the car without any reason? Have you been threatened or harassed during a motor vehicle stop by law-enforcement?  Was there absolutely no factual basis for the police to continue questioning you after the purpose of the motor vehicle stop was included? These issues were addressed by the federal third circuit court of appeals this week.

This is a very important Third Circuit decision involving motor vehicle stops and police interaction with drivers of motor vehicles. The issue is how long are the police allowed to affect and/or attenuate/investigate a motor vehicle stop for absolutely no legal basis other than the motor vehicle stop itself.. The federal Third Circuit includes Pennsylvania New Jersey and Delaware however this motor vehicle stop took place in Newark New Jersey. The facts are very straightforward.

The officer pulled over a vehicle for operating with its headlights out after dark. The officer walked up to the car and started to engage in a 22 minute conversation regarding the owner of the vehicle, the operator the vehicle and the lights being out. The driver communicated that the vehicle was his mothers, she was on the cell phone during the stop and on speaker. She affirmed this information to the police officer and the fact that she had not changed her address identified on her registration. However the office was then commenced on three different occasions, inquiring of the driver of the vehicle whether his license was suspended or not, his prior criminal history, and other issues not related to the motor vehicle stop in any context.

The officer then asked the driver out of the car, walked over to the front seat passenger, ask him out of the car because the officer all of the sudden now smelled marijuana and patted down the passenger. The passenger had a gun on his person and was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon. The passenger, Mr. Clark filed a motion to suppress the unlawful search not arising out of any lawful or legal basis connected to motor vehicle stop.

In this very important decision the Third Circuit reviewed the existing case law regarding the police entitlement to have a defendant driver answer questions, get out of the car, for their “continued investigation “which could arise from probable cause of criminal activity if same was actually observed. In this case the motor vehicle stop was extended for too long a period of time. The key factual issues in this case we’re nail down and undisputed because there was a police body camera that memorialize the entire conversation. As a result, there was no dispute as to what took place and the contents of the conversation between the police officer and the defendant driver. The court stated very directly:

“To repeat, a traffic stop’s mission is “to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns.” Id. at 1614 (citation omitted). “Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket,” this includes “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop.” Id. at 1615 (citation omitted) (alteration in original). These incidental inquiries typically involve checking the driver’s license and any outstanding warrants against the driver, as well as inspecting the vehicle’s registration and insurance. Id. They are considered part of the traffic stop’s mission because they serve its ultimate objective—to ensure roadway safety. Id.Tasks tied to officer safety are also part of the stop’s mission when done out of an interest to protect officers. Id. at 1616.

Not all inquiries during a traffic stop qualify as ordinarily incident to the stop’s mission. In particular, those “measure[s] aimed at detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing” do not pass muster. Id. at 1615 (quotation mark omitted) (second alteration in original). “On- scene investigation into other crimes . . . detours from th[e] mission,” as do “safety precautions taken . . . to facilitate such detours.” Id. at 1616. This is because “the Government’s endeavor to detect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular” is different in kind than roadway and officer safety interestsId.

Contrary to the Government’s suggestion, our holding does not “imagine some alternative means by which the objectives of the police might have been accomplished,” United States v. Sharpe, 470 U.S. 675, 686–87 (1985), nor do we “require that the officer employ the least intrusive means conceivable in effectuating [the] traffic stop,” United States v. Hill, 852 F.3d 377, 383 (4th Cir. 2017) (quotation marks omitted) (emphasis omitted). Simply stated, we hold that, after Bradley’s computerized check confirmed Roberts’ authority to drive the vehicle and without any other indicia he lacked that authority, the traffic stop was effectively completed.


Criminal Civil Lawyer

Jeffrey Hark is a New Jersey Civil and Criminal Lawyer.

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