Once again, "talk nice" carries legal weight

The court rules on an officer's warrantless search of the subject's vehicle during the course of a traffic stop


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UNITED STATES V. GASTELUM, 2021 WL 3888144 (8th Cir. 2021)

A trooper stopped Aldo Gastelum for an unsafe lane change on a busy freeway. The trooper approached the passenger side, told Gastelum of the reason for the stop and asked for his license and insurance information. After Gastelum explained the vehicle was rented, he handed over the rental information. When the trooper asked Gastelum about his travel plans, Gastelum said he had rented the car in Houston and was on his way to Chicago. Gastelum told the trooper he was a veteran and was visiting Army Reserve facilities looking for employment in the Reserves. Gastelum said he was a disabled college student in California and that he was planning to fly back to California from Chicago.

The trooper returned to his patrol car to check Gastelum’s license and to review the rental agreement. He wrote a warning citation for the lane change. He noticed the rental contract was a one-way, single-day rental agreement for $734.39. The trooper thought Gastelum’s travel plans were peculiar.

When the trooper returned to the side of the rental car, he asked Gastelum whether he had any luggage in the trunk. Gastelum said he did. The trooper replied, “Quick check of that and then we’ll be done. Alright, come on out for me and pop that trunk on your way out.” Gastelum had some trouble opening the rental car’s trunk. The trooper joked that trunk releases “are kind of hard to find.” Before Gastelum opened the trunk, but while he was looking for the trunk release, the trooper asked: “You don’t mind if I look back there, do you? You don’t care, huh? That’s fine?” The trooper testified he was repeating what Gastelum was saying. Once Gastelum opened the trunk and got out of the car, the trooper saw a duffle bag in the trunk. The trooper opened it and found 15 kilograms of cocaine. He ordered Gastelum to the ground and handcuffed him.

Gastelum asked the court to suppress the evidence from the warrantless search of the car. He claimed the trooper improperly extended the traffic stop. The trial court denied the motion and Gastelum appealed.

A traffic stop may not be extended beyond “the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made” unless the officer develops a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity (Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015)). Reasonable suspicion analysis is based on the totality of the circumstances. The appellate court held the trooper had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop.

The trooper had “over 25 years of experience, has attended numerous drug-interdiction trainings each year since 2008 and has participated in as many as 100 traffic stops resulting in criminal seizures.” He recognized the car rental period was far too short to visit Reserve centers between Houston and Chicago, a drive of 12 to 15 hours. The trooper also noted the cost of the car rental far exceeded the cost of flying. Many courts have acknowledged that drug traffickers often avoid commercial passenger flights and stick to driving.

Gastelum’s explanation that, as a disabled college student, he would spend the time and expense to travel from California to Houston and then Chicago to visit Reserve units, rather than just visit Reserve units in California, also didn’t add up. Moreover, the trooper knew that one does not show up at a military unit seeking a position. In fact, most folks know that’s just not how military recruitment works. The trooper also testified that Gastelum deflected several questions by referring to his military service and aspirations. The court observed that “Gastelum’s deflection of the trooper‘s questioning with a non-responsive discussion about his military experience” is a permissible consideration in the reasonable suspicion analysis, just as any other evasive answer would be.

Gastelum also claimed the trooper gave an unlawful command to open his trunk when he requested to check the luggage in the trunk and then said, “Come on out … and pop that trunk on your way out.” Though the court noted the command format of the initial direction was “problematic,” the court considered the entire conversation in context. The court credited the “friendly atmosphere, rapport, and conversation” as evidence the consent to open and search the trunk was voluntary. In other words, the court found the trooper “talked nice” in asking for consent. Talk nice, think mean.

NEXT: Why this case remains a perfect example of “talk nice, think mean”

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