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Criminal Practice – Question about illegal items in car wasn’t improper

Where a police officer asked two occupants in a stopped car whether there was “anything illegal” in the car, the motion to suppress firearms found in the car was denied because the question went to officer safety, given the time of night, the high drug area and the history and behavior of one of the occupants.


Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2018, West Virginia police officer Tyler Dawson pulled over a car for a defective brake light. Jason Wattie Buzzard was driving and Paul William Martin was in the passenger seat. Dawson, who was patrolling alone that night, called into dispatch that he was stopping a vehicle with two occupants and gave his location. He then approached the vehicle and recognized Martin (he’d had prior interactions with Martin while on duty).

At some point during the stop, Dawson asked whether there was anything illegal in the car. In response, Buzzard and Martin both volunteered drug paraphernalia; Buzzard produced a marijuana “bowl” from under his shirt and Martin produced a hypodermic needle and syringe.

Additional officers arrived on the scene and Buzzard and Martin were removed from the vehicle. The officers searched the car and recovered two handguns—one from under the driver’s seat and one from under the passenger’s seat. They arrested Buzzard and Martin, who were each charged with being a felon in possession of firearms.

Martin and Buzzard filed nearly identical motions to suppress the guns, together with additional evidence found in the vehicle. They claimed that Dawson violated their Fourth Amendment rights by asking whether there was anything illegal in the car because the question wasn’t related to the traffic stop’s mission and unlawfully prolonged the stop. After a joint evidentiary hearing, the district court denied both motions.

Motion to suppress

Buzzard and Martin contend that, by asking whether there was anything illegal in the vehicle, Dawson “transformed a legitimate traffic stop into an investigation to see if Buzzard and Martin were engaged in any criminal conduct.” The district court rejected this argument, determining that Dawson’s question related to officer safety, reasoning that it “could expose dangerous weapons or narcotics” and that courts “have already recognized the authority of officers conducting a traffic stop to inquire about dangerous weapons.”

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, this court agrees with the district court that Dawson’s question related to officer safety and thus related to the traffic stop’s mission. Dawson was outnumbered, and he asked the question because of “the time of night and the high drug area, Mr. Martin’s history and Mr. Martin’s behavior.” Given the totality of the circumstances, it makes sense that he needed to know more about what Buzzard and Martin had in the car.

It’s true that the question, “Is there anything illegal in the vehicle,” could be interpreted more broadly than one worded slightly differently (for example, “Is there anything dangerous in the vehicle?” or “Are there weapons in the vehicle?”). But given the importance of officer safety and the Supreme Court’s repeated recognition that “traffic stops are ‘especially fraught with danger to police officers,’” this court declines to require such laser-like precision from an officer asking a single question in these circumstances. In any event, Dawson’s question didn’t extend the stop by even a second.

Martin’s appeal

Martin argues that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that he possessed the guns recovered from the car.

The evidence was more than sufficient for the jury to conclude that Martin possessed the guns. Martin knew that Buzzard had the guns in the car and intended to buy them. And not only did Buzzard testify that he handed the guns to Martin when Martin got into the car, there’s also plenty of circumstantial evidence that Martin was the one who hid the guns under the driver’s and passenger’s seats. The district court’s order denying Martin’s motion for acquittal is affirmed. And because Martin’s challenge to the revocation of his prior term of supervised release is based entirely on his assertion that there wasn’t substantial evidence for his conviction, that decision is also affirmed.


United States v. Buzzard (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-118-21, 14 pp.) (Albert Diaz, J.) Case Nos. 20-4087, 20-4221, and 20-4228. June 11, 2021. From S.D. W.Va. (Joseph R. Goodwin, J.) David Robert Bungard for Appellants. Louie Alexander Hamner for Appellee.

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