Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Length of Traffic Stop not Unreasonable Prior to Completion of Computer Checks

United States v. Estrada, No. 05-41042 (5th Cir. Aug. 8, 2006)

In Estrada the Fifth Circuit holds that there was no Fourth Amendment violation when a DPS trooper extended a traffic stop for a minor equipment violation to inquire about matters unrealated to the reason for the stop and to request consent to search the vehicle.

The case involves a typical fact pattern: an apparently pretextual traffic stop for a de minimus traffic violation, investigation of and questioning on matters unrelated to the reason for the stop while waiting for computer checks on license plates and driver's licenses, a request for consent to search the vehicle after the checks come back clean, and ultimately the discovery of drugs.

The court held that under United States v. Brigham, 382 F.3d 500 (5th Cir. 2004) (en banc) (which adopted a breathtakingly broad view of the permissible scope of a traffic stop), the length of the stop prior to the completion of the computer checks was reasonable. "In a valid traffic stop, an officer may request a driver's license and vehicle registration and run a computer check thereon." Slip op. at 5. Because the trooper developled a reasonable suspicion to extend the stop prior to the completion of the computer checks (he saw marks on the gas tank which he believed to be evidence of a hidden drug compartment), it was not unreasonable to extend the stop beyond that point. The defendants' consent to search the truck was therefore not tainted by an unlawful seizure, and the totality of circumstances supported the district court's finding that the consent was voluntarily given.

The chief culprit here (apart from Whren) is the Fifth Circuit's erroneous en banc decision in Brigham. See Judge DeMoss's excellent dissent in Brigham for a lengthy and detailed explanation of why the majority was wrong.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I currently am fighting a reconsideration filed by the gov't regarding the Court's granting my suppression motion. My guy was pulled over for no front license plate however he had it on his dash. transp. code states that this is not a violation of the law. Any ideas how to use these facts to get around the computer checks allowed pursuant to Brigham. thanks, frank

8/26/2008 06:20:00 PM  

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