Admission of drugs supports reasonable extension of traffic stop
While the arrival of a drug detector team was fortuitous in this case, the critical factor was that the trooper performed the business of the traffic stop in good order
This article was featured in Lexipol’s Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys. Subscribe here!
United States v. Lott, 954 F.3d 919 (6th Cir. 2020)
Garrett Lott approached a state trooper, slowing to coast past the trooper in the left lane. As Lott passed, the trooper noted Lott’s arms were locked forward and his gaze was fixed straight ahead. After following Lott for three-quarters of a mile, the trooper stopped Lott for a left-lane violation.
The trooper described Lott as “extremely nervous beyond that of a normal traffic stop” and “visibly shaken.” The trooper told Lott he was not going to issue a traffic citation but would check driver license status and for any for outstanding warrants. Just then, a trooper with a drug detector dog came near and the first trooper flagged him down.
Due to Lott’s nervousness, the trooper asked him to step outside of his car. The trooper asked for consent to search, which Lott denied. When the trooper told Lott a drug detector dog would sniff his car, Lott responded, “I have a little bit of marijuana in the console.” The drug detector dog gave a positive response to the interior of the car, focusing on the console. The trooper found the marijuana and searched the rest of the car. The trooper found heroin, other drugs and money in the trunk.
Lott claimed the initial stop was pretextual. The court quickly dismissed that claim, citing Whren v. United States (517 U.S. 806 (1996)): “When a traffic stop is supported by probable cause, an officer’s subjective intent is irrelevant.” Lott also argued the traffic stop was unconstitutionally extended. Officers may reasonably extend a stop if “something happened during the stop to cause the officer to have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot” (United States v. Stepp, 680 F.3d 651, (6th Cir. 2012)). The “something” that happened in this case was Lott’s admission he had marijuana in the car, coupled with the fact that the computer check results had not come back yet. Lott presented no evidence that the duration of a mobile-data-terminal warrant check was unusually or unreasonably long.
It won’t always happen that a drug detector team will drive by at just the right moment. Though fortuitous – well, not for Lott – the critical factor is that the trooper performed the business of the traffic stop in good order and appeared to have not delayed in performing allowable computer checks.