Federal Appeals Court rules gun discovery violates Fourth Amendment because traffic stop was unlawfully extended

Philadelphia officers had removed a vehicle’s passenger for safety concerns during a traffic stop and found a loaded pistol


During the early morning hours of February 23, 2019, Philadelphia police officers Cannon and Gonzalez were on patrol in a high crime area of North Philadelphia. They observed a two-door pick-up truck drive through a stop sign and fail to activate a turn signal. The officers pulled the truck over and the officers approached the truck on both sides. They observed three male passengers, two in the front and one in the back.

During the officers’ collection of license, registration and keys from the driver, they smelled alcohol and noticed that the front seat passenger was heavily intoxicated. The officers requested the driver to step out of the truck for a sobriety test. The driver complied and left the truck door open as he exited.

Officer Cannon, uninvited and “without apparent justification,” entered the truck and placed both knees on the driver’s seat. He explained at a subsequent evidence suppression hearing that he entered to engage with the passengers.

Cannon told both passengers three times to keep their hands visible. They failed to comply and explained that they were cold. Cannon exited the truck, walked to the other side and ordered the front seat passenger to step out. While this was going on, Officer Gonzalez was in the process of conducting a field sobriety test on the driver. Gonzalez noticed that Cannon was attempting to deal with the two passengers. Before he completed the sobriety test and before running the driver’s license and registration, he placed the driver in the patrol car to assist Cannon with the passengers. He did so out of concern for the safety of his fellow officer.

Meanwhile, Hurtt, the backseat passenger, turned away from Cannon and reached toward a tool bucket on the seat next to him. Cannon ordered him to show his hands and Hurtt put them up and said, “I’m cool.”

Hurtt reached for the bucket again, but Cannon grabbed his arm and told Hurtt to exit the truck. Hurtt complied and during a subsequent search, Cannon found a loaded handgun in his waistband. Hurtt was arrested and the entire stop lasted 16 minutes and 33 seconds based on police video.

During a motion to suppress the hearing Hurtt argued that when Cannon entered the truck, he strayed from the parameters of a lawful traffic stop. He argued that this unlawful police action made the subsequent discovery of the gun illegal. The District Court judge rejected Hurtt’s argument and ruled that Cannon “was justified in looking into the vehicle to maintain the safety of the officers … during the open investigations.” Hurtt entered a guilty plea but preserved his right of appeal.

"Precarious conduct” of the officer

The Decision of the Court of Appeals – The Third Circuit [1] determined that the initial traffic stop of the pick-up truck was reasonable and based upon probable cause. The court next examined Officer Cannon’s actions during the time period of the stop.

The court observed that during a traffic stop, the police investigation must be reasonably related to the reasons for the stop. The court explained that if an extension of a stop prolongs it beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket, the resulting delay must be supported by reasonable suspicion.

The court cited the United States Supreme Court opinion in Rodriguez v. United States in which the Supreme Court ruled that “a seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation … becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission.” [2]

The Third Circuit stated that “when evaluating whether an officer was on-mission, we consider the legitimate and weighty interest in officer safety and thus will tolerate additional intrusions, such as forcing a driver to get out of a vehicle.” [3] However, the court observed that “police may not vary from the original mission and thereby create an exigency to support the resulting delay and any subsequent arrest.” The court explained that “an officer cannot create a safety concern while off-mission and then rely upon that concern to justify a detour from the basic mission of the traffic stop.”

The court stated that “presence in a high-crime area alone cannot justify a safety concern that would excuse deviating from the original purpose of the detention.” The court observed that while Officer Gonzalez was conducting the field sobriety test, “Cannon entered the truck and kneeled on the front seat, putting himself in a very vulnerable position. Gonzalez had to interrupt – indeed he stopped – his attempt to determine the sobriety of the driver for the purpose of ensuring Cannon’s safety.” At that point, there was no reasonable suspicion to search Hurtt.

The court determined that Cannon’s “precarious conduct” required his fellow officer to stop the sobriety exam so he could “ensure his partner’s safety.” The court explained that “because Cannon created a safety concern by going off-mission, the officers cannot rely upon that concern to justify detouring from the original purpose of the traffic stop.” “Accordingly, pausing the field sobriety test, for this reason, was off-mission …[and] without reasonable suspicion.” This off-mission action unlawfully extended the traffic stop, “was unlawful under Rodriguez, and the subsequent search violated Hurtt’s Fourth Amendment rights.”

Conclusion

The court’s decision, in this case, is difficult to accept because Officer Cannon and his fellow officer acted in the manner described to protect themselves from possible serious physical harm. Moreover, their safety concerns proved real when a loaded firearm was discovered on the person of defendant Hurtt. Nonetheless, the appellate court considered and rejected officer safety concerns in ruling against the prosecution.

The unfavorable result notwithstanding, it is our duty to examine the decision for guidance for future police actions:

  • During a lawful traffic stop, officers may order the driver to exit the vehicle for safety concerns. See, Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977).
  • During a lawful traffic stop, officers may order passengers to exit the vehicle for safety concerns. See, Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997).
  • During a lawful traffic stop, officers may not go off mission and extend the traffic stop beyond its normal parameters, unless they have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity may be present. See, Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015).
  • Officer Cannon’s uninvited entry, without reasonable suspicion, into the stopped vehicle, created the unwarranted delay in processing the traffic stop.
  • Presence of a person in a high crime area alone, without more, will not create a reasonable suspicion that the person may be armed. See, Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 124 (2000).
  • This decision, although mandatory only within the jurisdiction of the Third Circuit, can be accepted as persuasive authority by the other federal courts of appeal. [4]

References

1. United States of America v. Hurtt, (No. 20-2494) (3d. Cir. 2022).

2. See Rodriguez, 575 U.S. 348, 350-351 (2015).

3. Additional quotes eliminated.

4. The Third Circuit covers Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

NEXT: 'Poor multitasking' leads to 15-minute registration stop

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