Suspect's stomach fluttering supported traffic stop extension for drug dog sniff

The court rules on whether a deputy had reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop based on the suspect's behavior and state of his vehicle


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UNITED STATES V. PACHECO, 2021 WL 1703265 (8th CIR 2021)

A deputy with a drug detector dog stopped Reymundo Yanez for speeding and drifting across lanes. As the deputy approached Yanez’s vehicle, he noticed it contained food as well as a case of soda and “looked extremely lived in.” The deputy suspected Yanez was traveling without taking many breaks and learned he was driving a rental vehicle from California. The deputy reviewed the rental agreement. He told Yanez he was only going to issue a warning and asked Yanez to follow him to his patrol vehicle.

As Yanez and the deputy sat in the front of seat of the patrol car and the deputy wrote a warning citation, he observed that Yanez “appeared very nervous” and “uneasy,” that he was avoiding eye contact, and that his stomach was visibly “fluttering.” (In the many hundreds of interdiction cases I’ve studied, this is the first time I’ve seen an officer describe visible stomach flutters as a clue.) The deputy perceived that Yanez was trying to control the conversation by asking “very unusual questions.” This was consistent with the deputy’s experience in dealing with persons engaged in criminal activity.

When the deputy asked Yanez where he was traveling, Yanez responded, “Iowa,” even though they were already in Iowa. When asked for a more specific location, Yanez struggled to remember the name of the town. Yanez said he would be visiting friends in Iowa for four or five days. But the rental term was too short to account for the duration of Yanez’s described trip. It appeared that Yanez would drive the rental vehicle from California to Iowa, leave it and then fly back to California. The deputy noted that this was “very expensive and… just not oftentimes reasonable for people to do.”

The deputy issued the warning citation, then asked Yanez to wait in the patrol vehicle so that the drug detector dog could conduct a sniff of Yanez’s vehicle. After the sniff, the deputy asked for Yanez’s consent to search the back seat. Yanez agreed. The deputy saw the spare tire in the back seat. Yanez claimed the rental company put it there. The deputy knew drug traffickers often transported drugs in the spare-tire compartment. When the deputy asked Yanez where his luggage was, he said it was in a backpack in the back seat. The deputy saw “a very minimal amount of clothing,” which he considered “not consistent with long travel.” Yanez then explained he was planning on buying more clothes in Iowa.

The deputy searched the spare-tire compartment in the trunk and found two large plastic bags containing around 40 pounds of methamphetamine. Yanez asked the court to suppress the drug evidence, arguing the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop and probable cause to search the spare-tire compartment in the trunk. The trial court denied his motion. Yanez conditionally pleaded guilty, and the court sentenced Yanez to eight years imprisonment.

Yanez appealed the denial of his suppression motion. The appellate court began by observing that the deputy needed only reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to extend the traffic stop. The court held there was ample evidence of reasonable suspicion of drug trafficking: “First, the incongruity between Yanez’s short rental period and his described travel plans to drive from California to Iowa and stay with friends for four to five days suggested that either Yanez was lying about his trip or that he would be flying back.” The court noted it had previously found reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop in part because of the “outwardly puzzling decision to rent a car for a one-way trip at substantial expense.”

“Second, Yanez gave odd answers about his travel plans.” He told the deputy he was going to Iowa – when he was already in Iowa – and that he wasn’t sure of the destination city. Third, Yanez was so nervous that the deputy “could see his stomach visibly ‘fluttering.’” And finally, the food wrappers gave the car a “lived in look,” which the court had previously held contributed to reasonable suspicion sufficient to extend a traffic stop.

There was still the question of whether there was probable cause to search the trunk. The court cited both the location of the spare tire in the back seat and the small amount of clothes packed for a long interstate trip. That, paired with the deputy’s other observations, established probable cause to search the trunk, the court held.

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