Proper travel-related questions lead to reasonable suspicion

An officer asks travel-related questions during a traffic stop; the court decides if the stop was unreasonably extended


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UNITED STATES V. CALLISON, 2021 WL 2753151 (8th Cir. 2021)

An officer saw Timothy Rios driving late at night through a residential area with a broken license-plate light. The officer followed Rios for several blocks and activated his emergency lights after Rios pulled into a driveway. The officer stopped behind Rios, blocking his car, and briefly turned off the patrol car headlights to verify the license plate was not lit.

The officer approached the car. Rios was driving, Kelly Shannon was the front passenger and David Callison was in the backseat. When the officer asked why Rios stopped at the house, Rios said he was “dropping off a friend.” Rios had a valid license, no warrants and, while the car was properly registered, Rios could not find proof of insurance.

As Rios searched for the insurance card, the officer asked him to recite the address of the house without looking. Rios could not. When the officer asked for the friend’s name, Callison said, “Neil,” at the same time Shannon said, “Rob.” The officer commented on Rios’s nervousness and sweating at 0100 on an early spring night.

Approximately six minutes into the stop, the officer called for backup and asked the occupants if there was anything illegal in the car. When the backup officer arrived, the officers ordered Shannon and Callison out of the car. Shannon dropped a cigarette pack as she got out and officers found methamphetamine in it. They searched the car and found a duffle bag inside that contained methamphetamine, digital scales with methamphetamine residue, two prescription-drug bottles and a large amount of cash. The officers arrested all three occupants. Based on an interview with Callison, the officers obtained a warrant to search Callison’s home, discovering additional drug evidence there.

Callison asked the trial court to suppress all evidence, claiming the officer impermissibly extended the traffic stop by asking travel-related questions, then questions about contraband in the car. The trial court agreed, and the prosecution appealed. The appellate court reversed the trial court’s order to suppress drug-related evidence. The court of appeals held that the officer did not extend the traffic stop until he asked the driver of the vehicle if there was anything illegal in the car – roughly five to six minutes into the encounter.

The officer asked questions about the location where Rios had stopped the car and the name of the friend at the same time that Rios was searching for proof of insurance. The officer was still engaged in the primary purpose of the stop – issuing a traffic citation for the license plate light and obtaining proper documents, including proof of insurance. Thus, the officer did not need reasonable suspicion of another crime to extend the stop when he began asking travel-related questions five minutes into the encounter.

The court further held that the officer had reasonable suspicion of another crime at the point he asked if there was anything illegal in the car. The court cited these factors as supporting reasonable suspicion to extend the stop around the six-minute mark:

  1. The car pulled into a residential driveway after the officer followed it for a brief time without activating his lights.
  2. It was 0100.
  3. Rios avoided eye contact and behaved nervously during the encounter.
  4. Neither Rios nor his passengers knew the address or street where they stopped. 
  5. Rios said they were dropping off a friend, but the two passengers simultaneously gave different names for that friend.

The officer talked nice, thought mean and conducted the stop by the numbers. He used the time during which Rios was fumbling about for the insurance card to ask permissible, travel-related questions. When Rios and the others gave suspicious answers, the officer slightly shifted his focus based on the reasonable suspicion he had developed.

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