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Traffic stop extended for 40 minutes: Was there reasonable suspicion?

In a recent case, the court determines whether a traffic stop was legally extended based on reasonable suspicion

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Traffic stop

The court held the trooper had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop.

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UNITED STATES V. BETTS, 2023 WL 8637800 (8th Cir. 2023)

A trooper stopped Chad Betts for passing a semi-truck without signaling and for an inoperable taillight. The trooper approached Betts’ vehicle on the front passenger side, where Betts’ niece, Macey Wignall, sat. The trooper saw a torch-style lighter on the floor of the front passenger seat. He also saw several shopping bags, including new clothes and shoes. Betts provided a driver’s license and registration but explained his insurance had lapsed. The trooper had Betts sit in his patrol car to complete a warning.

As the trooper spoke with Betts, he saw Betts had “extremely rotting teeth,” was speaking quickly and sweating profusely, was “very fidgety,” and “had quick movements.” Betts’ rapid, shallow breathing was audible to the trooper. The trooper’s prior experience and training informed him these traits were consistent with methamphetamine use.

Once they were seated in the patrol vehicle, the trooper asked Betts about his travel plans. Betts said he and his niece had been driving to Las Vegas, but turned around in Nebraska because of a pet-sitting problem. Betts told the trooper he was unemployed and couldn’t afford car insurance. He continued to sweat, even though the patrol car air conditioning was running.

The trooper walked back to Betts’ car, leaving Betts in the patrol car. Wignall said she and Betts had taken a one-day trip to an outlet mall some distance away. She said nothing about a Las Vegas vacation.

The trooper went back to his patrol car to complete the written warning. When he asked Betts about his travel plans once again, Betts said they had stopped at an outlet mall after turning back toward home. The trooper checked driver’s license records and found Betts was on parole for methamphetamine crimes and driving while barred. The trooper suspected Betts was a methamphetamine user and was likely holding methamphetamine. Wignall’s record showed she had prior drug-related convictions as well, and an eluding charge.

The trooper questioned Betts about drugs and contraband, asking whether a drug dog would alert to his vehicle. Betts “appeared very triggered” by the drug dog question. The trooper called for the nearest canine unit, which arrived approximately 40 minutes later. A drug detector dog gave a positive final response to the odors of controlled substances and a subsequent search of Betts’ vehicle revealed a loaded handgun, a six-round magazine, methamphetamine and paraphernalia. Betts admitted the gun and drugs were his.

Betts asked the trial court to suppress his statements to the trooper after receiving the written warning and the evidence discovered in his vehicle. Betts argued the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop and wait for the drug dog. The trooper testified it was suspicious that a person with limited income would abruptly turn around in the middle of a long drive from Iowa to Las Vegas because of pet care issues, rather than trying to find someone else to watch the pets. The trooper also said he knew Las Vegas to be a drug source city and found it odd Betts and Wignall would drive all the way to Las Vegas for such a short trip if it was purely recreational. Additionally, the trooper noted his observation that Betts’ behaviors were consistent with methamphetamine use. The district court assumed the traffic stop was extended when the trooper completed the written warning and called for the drug dog, but found reasonable suspicion to extend the stop existed at that time.

On appeal, Betts claimed the stop was extended when the trooper left him behind in the patrol car to speak with Wignall. He also claimed there was no reasonable suspicion of illegal drug possession at that point. In Rodriguez v. United States (575 U.S. 348 (2015)), the Supreme Court held that a stop may “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the initial purpose of the stop. Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.” The trooper’s conversation with Wignall had nothing to do with the reason for the stop. The appellate court agreed the traffic stop was extended at the point the trooper approached Wignall to speak with her after Betts had been placed in the patrol car.

The appellate court disagreed that the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop at the point he left Betts in the car and approached Wignall. The court cited several factors supporting reasonable suspicion that Betts was engaged in drug crimes, including Betts’ rapid speech, profuse sweating (in an air-conditioned car), and rapid, shallow breathing; the presence of a torch-style lighter, known to the trooper for use with methamphetamine; and Betts’ unusual travel plans and history of drug-related offenses. The appellate court noted the trial court should not have considered Wignall’s criminal history or her inconsistent travel plan statements. Notwithstanding, the court held the trooper had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop and await a drug detector dog.

Read more Ken Wallentine case reviews here.

A police officer and former prosecutor, Ken Wallentine is Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. Traffic detentions and passenger issues are discussed in his new book, Street Legal: A Guide to Pre-trial Criminal Procedure for Police, Prosecutors, and Defenders, published by the American Bar Association Press.
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