You're driving down the highway, and a trooper pulls you over. He sits you inside his cruiser and looks at your paperwork. After 10 minutes, he issues a warning and says you're free to leave. But as you walk back to your car, the trooper gets suspicious. He follows you, tells you to step to the side of the road, and searches your car. He finds drugs.
Does this scenario describe two police stops, or one?
The answer is important to Charles Williams, who found himself in a similar situation in 2013. A federal jury found him guilty of cocaine possession with intent to distribute after he was pulled over on Interstate 85 in Lexington, N.C. Now, Williams is appealing his conviction, criticizing a sheriff's deputy for searching his car after formally completing a traffic stop. The search, Williams argues, amounted to a second, successive traffic stop, violating his constitutional rights.
U.S. v. Williams
will be argued tomorrow in Richmond, Va., in front of a panel of Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals judges. Williams is fighting a district judge's denial of his motion to suppress evidence found in his trunk after a canine search: a safe containing 2.5 ounces of crack, two digital scales, clear plastic bags and $4,000 in cash.
A traffic stop begins when a car is pulled over, and ends when the police inform the driver that he or she is free to leave. Once a stop ends, law enforcement cannot stop the person again unless they have a new, independent basis for reasonable suspicion of a crime, according to a 10th Circuit case cited by Williams' attorney.
"The reasoning behind this rule is evident," the attorney wrote in a brief. "Without it, one legal traffic stop could turn into multiple harassing seizures at the whim or 'hunch' of any law enforcement officer."
Federal prosecutors with the Middle District of North Carolina, however, are skeptical that the Williams incident constituted two separate stops. They cite another case, out of the Fourth Circuit, suggesting that a canine search is permissible even after an officer returns a motorist's paperwork.
In 2012, a deputy in Lexington pulled over Williams' gold Hyundai Sonata speeding down I-85. Williams had alcohol on his breath, and the deputy sat him down in the passenger seat of his cruiser while he read over Williams' paperwork.
Williams told the deputy he was travelling from his mother's house in Virginia Beach to his brother's house in Charlotte. His license indicated he was from New York. When the deputy asked for his address, Williams provided a post office box. He was driving a rental car from New Jersey, with an agreement scheduled to expire that day. Williams explained that he planned to renew the contract in Charlotte.
The deputy administered a breathalyzer test, which Williams passed. The deputy issued Williams a warning citation for speeding, and Williams prepared to exit the cruiser.
Suddenly, however, the deputy said, "Can I ask you one more question?" Williams said yes. The deputy asked permission to search Williams' car. Williams said no. The deputy told Williams to step to the side of the road. He conducted a canine search, which turned up the drugs.
The deputy based the decision to conduct an involuntary search on a number of factors: I-85 is a known drug corridor around midnight; he appeared willing to break his rental car contract; and he didn't provide a permanent home address. Williams argues that the deputy had all of this knowledge prior to concluding the first traffic stop.
Following his conviction Williams was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.