Asking, 'Anything illegal in the car?' leads to admissible evidence

The court explains the duration of a traffic stop depends on the mission of the stop, making the officer's actions in this case reasonable


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UNITED STATES V. BUZZARD, 2021 WL 2387934 (4th Cir. 2021)

An officer pulled Jason Buzzard over at 0130 for a defective brake light. The officer called out the stop and approached the car. He recognized Paul Martin, the front seat passenger, from previous encounters, identifying Martin as a drug user who had just been released from prison. The officer knew that he was conducting the traffic stop in a high crime area, only a block away from a house known for drug sales.

At some point during the stop, the officer asked whether there was anything illegal in the car. In response, Martin pulled out a hypodermic needle and syringe and Buzzard produced a marijuana bowl from under his shirt. The officer waited to walk back to his car and complete computer checks until other officers arrived because he feared that Martin, who was fidgety and nervous, might flee.

Backup officers arrived and searched the car, finding two handguns wrapped in socks. One was under the driver seat (where Buzzard had been sitting) and the other was found under the passenger (Martin’s) seat. Buzzard and Martin were each charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Buzzard and Martin asked the court to suppress the evidence. They argued the officer’s question about anything illegal in the car improperly exceeded the scope of the traffic stop and extended the duration of the stop. A stop for a traffic violation may take the time necessary to determine “whether to issue a traffic ticket,” including time for “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance” (Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015)).

In Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court held 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.” The officer’s traffic mission includes asking about weapons, other questions directly relating to officer safety and inquiring about arrest warrants.

The appellate court held that “given the totality of the circumstances, it makes sense that [the officer] needed to know more about what Buzzard and Martin had in the car.” Asking whether there was anything illegal in the vehicle was directly related to the mission of the traffic stop. The court also noted the officer’s question did not extend the traffic stop – “not even by a second.” Thus, the evidence was properly admitted.

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