In United States v. Gomez, 16-181-cr (Parker, Wesley, and Droney), the Second Circuit found that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated during a five-minute traffic stop because the police officers extended the stop for reasons unrelated to the defendant’s traffic violations. However, the Court nonetheless affirmed the conviction, ruling that the good-faith exception applied given that the officers acted legally under the Second Circuit’s prior precedent.
The defendant – Brayan Gomez – was the subject of surveillance related to a heroin-trafficking investigation when police officers stopped Gomez after he committed several traffic violations. Gomez drove through a red light, changed lanes on the highway without signaling, and then made a right turn at a red light without stopping. When the officers pulled Gomez over, the officers questions “detoured from traffic violations to the subject of heroin.” The questioning continued and the officers eventually asked Gomez if he would consent to a search of the car. Gomez agreed to a search of the front seat and of his person; finding nothing, the officers asked to search Gomez’s trunk where they found a duffel bag containing more than 13,000 baggies of heroin for sale, along with a larger bag with raw heroin. In all, the bag contained 378.6 grams of heroin. Gomez was arrested for the drug violation and did not receive a traffic citation.
Suppression Hearing and Guilty Plea
After two suppression hearings, the district court denied Gomez’s motion to suppress. The district court credited the testimony of the officers that they stopped Gomez based on a belief that there was probable cause to believe that Gomez committed two traffic violations. The district court also found that Gomez consented to the search. The district court further relied on the Second Circuit’s decision in United States v. Harrison, 606 F.3d 42 (2d Cir. 2010) (per curiam) in concluding that the officers didn’t unreasonably extend the traffic stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment even though they questioned Gomez about matters unrelated to the traffic stop. In reaching its decision, the district court did not address the Government’s alternative argument that independent reasonable suspicion of a drug offense justified extending the traffic stop for the drug-related questioning.
Neither Gomez nor the Government directed the district court’s attention to the Supreme Court’s case, United States v. Rodriguez, -- U.S. --, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015) that had been decided two months before the suppression hearing. In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court addressed the question of whether it violated the Fourth Amendment to extend a legitimate traffic stop in order to conduct a search with a trained canine unit, in order to find drugs. There would need to have been independent reasonable suspicion that a drug crime had been committed for the stop to be legal. The District Court did not consider Rodriguez when it rendered its decision to deny Gomez’s motion to suppress. After the suppression motion was denied, Gomez entered a conditional plea of guilty and then appealed the denial of the suppression motion.
The Circuit’s Ruling
In order to determine the governing law prior to Rodriguez, the Second Circuit first examined several pre-Rodriguez Supreme Court decisions concerning the duration of traffic stops. See Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407 (2005) (dog sniff); Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 333 (2009) (questioning of a passenger by a different officer). In light of these decisions, several circuits, including the Eighth Circuit, adopted a de minimis rule, i.e., that a brief minutes-long extension of a traffic stop to conduct an unrelated investigation is a de minimis intrusion on a driver’s personal liberty that does not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Second Circuit then reviewed its decision in Harrison and explained that while the Second Circuit did not adopt a de minimis rule, it applied the reasoning in Caballes and Johnson to hold that the unrelated questioning during the five-to-six minute traffic stop did not prolong the stop so as to make it unconstitutional.
The Second Circuit then turned to the Supreme Court’s decision in Rodriguez where the Supreme Court rejected the de minimis rule and 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.” Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. at 1612. The Rodriguez decision recognized that while an officer may conduct some unrelated checks during a lawful traffic stop, such as a dog sniff or on-scene investigation into other crimes, the officer may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop absent independent reasonable suspicion ordinarily needed to justify detaining an individual. Id. at 1614. The Supreme Court specifically rejected the proposition that an officer may “incrementally” prolong a stop to conduct an unrelated investigation even when the overall duration of the stop remains reasonable in relation to other traffic stops involving similar circumstances. Id. at 1616.
After carefully examining the Rodriguez decision, the Second Circuit concluded that the holding in Harrison does not survive Rodriguez. The Court explained that Harrison’s conclusion that the extension of the traffic stop was reasonable based on the total length of the stop conflicts with Rodriguez’s holding that unrelated inquiries that prolong a traffic stop violate the Fourth Amendment absent reasonable suspicions of a separate crime. Accordingly, the Circuit concluded that the District Court erred by applying Harrison in denying Gomez’s motion to suppress. The Court found that Gomez’s traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment because the officer’s on-scene investigation into drug trafficking unrelated to Gomez’s traffic violations prolonged the traffic stop. As to the Government’s argument that the extended traffic stop is lawful under Rodriguez because the officers possessed independent reasonable suspicion that Gomez was trafficking heroin, the Court declined to reach the issue that had not been decided below because of insufficient factual record and the absence of “manifest injustice” that would result from not reaching the reasonable suspicion issue.
However, the Second Circuit found that even though Gomez’s traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment, suppression was unwarranted because the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies to the police officers’ conduct. The good-faith exception provides, among other things, that searches conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent are not subject to the exclusionary rule because suppression would not deter police misconduct under these circumstances. The Court thus found that the exception applies in this case because the officers conducted Gomez’s five-minute traffic stop in objectively reasonable reliance on the Second Circuit’s then-binding precedent in Harrison. The Second Circuit exercised its discretion to consider the Government’s good-faith argument, which was not raised before the District Court, because Gomez did not argue below that the holding in Harrison was abrogated and because the Government’s argument required no additional fact-finding.
As to Gomez’s contention that the traffic stop was unlawful at its inception, the Second Circuit concluded that the District Court did not commit an error in finding that the police officer had probable cause or reasonable suspicion to initiate the traffic stop based on the Court’s review of the testimony during the suppression hearings and the contemporaneous radio communications of the officers. Similarly, based on the record of the suppression hearings and the district court’s credibility findings, the Second Circuit rejected Gomez’s final argument that the District Court committed clear error in crediting the officers’ testimony and finding that Gomez verbally consented to the search of the car, its trunk, and the bag in the trunk.
The Supreme Court in Rodriguez wisely returned to Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), and recognized that a routine traffic stop cannot be prolonged indefinitely in order to permit the police to pursue an investigation unrelated to the traffic stop. Given that the Fourth Amendment looks to the objective reasonableness of the officers’ actions, see Scott v. United States, 436 U.S. 128, 137-39 (1978), the fact that the officers in Gomez were conducting a pretextual traffic stop does not matter to the analysis of whether the car stop was valid. The Fourth Amendment permits pretextual stops so long as the objective circumstances support a legal stop; it does not matter that the officers really were looking to investigate for drugs rather than to investigate traffic violations. But it does not follow from this rule of law that officers should be permitted to extend these stops beyond the objective purpose animating the stop, in order to conduct “on-scene investigation into other crimes.”
However, it will be not Gomez but another defendant who is able to benefit from Rodriguez due to the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, which allows the fruits of unconstitutional searches or seizures to be used as trial evidence so long as the officers acted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding precedent. Here, the Court could have decided not to reach the Fourth Amendment issue and decided the matter based on the good-faith exception, as it has done in some recent cases. See, e.g., United States v. Ganias. By writing a lengthy, thoughtful opinion, the Court has provided a road map to future defendants who might be subjected to an unduly long traffic stop.