Monday, August 28, 2006

Court Concludes Traffic Stop was Illegally Extended, and Reverses Denial of Motion to Suppress

United States v. Jenson, No. 05-50683 (5th Cir. Aug. 23, 2006)

Jenson is notable for a couple of reasons. First, it demonstrates that the reasonable suspicion standard actually has teeth by holding that a state trooper lacked a reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop, because the Government failed to articulate a connection between the allegedly suspicious totality of circumstances surrounding the stop and some specific criminal activity. Second, it suggests that Brigham isn't quite as broad as it might appear. This is one that you'll definitely want to keep handy in your toolbox.

The facts: When Jenson was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding, he took 30 seconds to one minute to come to a complete stop. The trooper ran the driver's licenses of Jenson and his two passengers. Within a few minutes the license checks came back clean. The trooper finished writing out the warning that he'd started before the checks came back, and issued it to Jenson. The trooper thought Jenson was acting nervous, so he continued to question Jenson and one of the passengers about their travel plans. The trooper perceived some (picayune) discrepancies in their answers, so he asked for and received Jenson's consent to search the vehicle. Before beginning the search, the trooper told Jenson he would have to pat him down. Jenson became agitated, complained about harassment, and started emptying his pockets. The trooper unholstered his gun and ordered Jenson to put his hands behind his back. The frisk turned up a pistol, so the trooper ran a criminal background check on Jenson which revealed that he was a convicted felon. Another officer found a bag of marijuana in Jenson's sock when he was brought to jail.

The district court denied Jenson's motion to suppress, and Jenson appealed. "Jenson concede[d] that his speeding justified the traffic stop at its inception. Therefore, the sole issue on appeal [was] whether the officer's subsequent actions, including his request to search the vehicle and his pat-down search of Jenson's person, were reasonably related to the circumstances justifying the stop." Slip op. at 3. Because of Brigham, that question often turns on whether a reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity developed prior to the return of checks on a driver's and passengers' ID's. "If all computer checks come back clean, then as a general matter reasonable suspicion disappears, and there is no legitimate reason for extending the stop." Id. at 4.

On the facts of this case, "the specific issue of first impression [was] whether taking an unusual amount of time to pull over, coupled with nervous behavior by the driver, amounts to reasonable suspicion to justify prolonged detention." Id. The court answered that question "no," principally because "the government [did] not present adequate evidence of a nexus between Jenson's allegedly suspicious behavior and any specific criminal activity." Id. at 5 (emphasis added). (The court went on to hold that although the district court did not clearly err in finding that Jenson's consent to search the vehicle was voluntary, it was nevertheless not an independent act of free will.)

That's significant. Commonly, the Government will simply recite the facts comprising the totality of circumstances surrounding a given seizure, and then baldly assert that the facts amount to a reasonable suspicion without bothering to explain exactly how those facts lead to a reasonable inference that there is some specific criminal activity afoot. And all too often courts will do the same thing. Jenson, on the other hand, makes clear that a vague, inchoate assertion of suspicious circumstances is not enough to meet the standard for a Terry stop.

Then there's this interesting footnote regarding the scope of Brigham:

Some language in Brigham suggests that it does not matter in what sequence the police ask for consent to search the vehicle and conduct the background ID search. See Brigham, 382 F.3d at 511 ("There is . . . no constitutional stopwatch on traffic stops."); id. (stating that ID searches "need not be pursued to the exclusion of, or in particular sequence with, other efficient means."). As quoted above, however, we put particular emphasis on the fact that defendants' ID's had not yet cleared, and we explicitly stated that the government had not asked the en banc court to reconsider Dortch, Jones, or Santiago. See id. at 510 n.10. The best understanding of Brigham is to treat as decisive the fact that, in that case, one passenger presented the police with a fake license, which (a) heightened suspicion about the passenger's activities and (b) necessarily extended the time required to identify and clear the vehicle's occupants.

Slip op. at 8 n.14. So look for a way to distinguish Brigham on its facts the next time you pursue a motion to suppress arising out of a traffic stop.


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