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Criminal Practice – Detention After Traffic Stop Was ‘Reasonable’

U.S. v. Palmer (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-073-16, 30 pp.) (King, J.) No. 14-4736, April 21, 2016; USDC at Norfolk, Va. (Doumar, J.) 4th Cir.

Holding: A police officer who stopped defendant for a suspected fraudulent inspection sticker and illegal window tint, and who observed five strongly scented air fresheners inside the car, and who, within minutes, confirmed that the vehicle did not belong to the driver and that the driver was a gang member with a criminal record of four drug arrests and illegal firearm possession, did not violate the Fourth Amendment by detaining the driver, using a drug dog and searching the car; the 4th Circuit affirms denial of the driver’s motion to suppress cocaine and a firearm.

Legal Stop

The Nissan was legally stopped based on the officer’s suspicion about the illegal window tint, which he later confirmed. While checking the back of the inspection sticker, which was valid, the officer smelled marijuana in the vehicle. At that point, he had probable cause to believe the vehicle contained contraband and was therefore entitled to search it.

Unless defendant can demonstrate some constitutional violation between the time the stop began and the point when the officer smelled marijuana, the evidence cannot be suppressed.

An officer is entitled to inquire into a motorist’s criminal record after initiating a traffic stop, and we cannot fault this officer – faced with a suspected member of a violent gang – for doing so here. Nor did the officer’s detention of defendant prior to smelling marijuana unreasonably expand the scope of duration of the traffic stop.

The trial court listed eight factors that demonstrated a connection to unlawful conduct: Defendant was in a high crime area where citizens were complaining about drug dealing; he was nervous; the Nissan emitted an “overwhelming” scent of air freshener from multiple air fresheners; defendant was a suspected member of the Bounty Hunter Bloods; defendant’s driver’s license listed a P.O. box address, rather than a residence; defendant was driving a vehicle registered in another person’s name; and defendant had a criminal record that included four narcotics arrests and an illegal firearm charge.

These factors identified by the district court – viewed in their totality – eliminated a substantial portion of innocent travelers and demonstrated a connection to possible criminal activity. We are satisfied the officer’s actions prior to examining the Nissan’s inspection sticker were entirely permissible under Terry v. Ohio because the officer did not unreasonably expand the scope of the traffic stop.

Further, the officer did not conduct a warrantless search of the Nissan when he stuck his head inside the car to examine the back of the inspection sticker. Defendant has not asserted, much less shown, any legitimate expectation of privacy that was unreasonably infringed. The district court credited the officer’s testimony regarding the appearance of the sticker during the traffic stop, explicitly relying on the officer’s observation that he had seen numerous fraudulent stickers and that the Nissan sticker resembled those. The court itself examined the sticker both in the video of the traffic stop and in a photograph defendant introduced into evidence. The sticker was lighter in color than normal and the perforated middle portion was not visible from the car’s outside. The government has shown the officer’s means of investigating the inspection sticker were appropriate and not unreasonably intrusive.

Judgment affirmed.


Wynn, J.: I fully concur in the majority opinion. I agree with the majority opinion that we cannot fault the officer – faced with a suspected member of a violent gang – for inquiring into the motorist’s criminal record here.

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