By Gretchen Schuldt
Polk County sheriff's deputies had no legitimate basis to significantly extend a traffic stop to allow time for a drug investigation of the driver, the State Court of Appeals ruled last week.
"At best, the officers had an inchoate suspicion or 'hunch,' which is insufficient to support an extension of the stop for the traffic offense," the District III Court of Appeals panel said in an unsigned opinion.
The panel included Appeals Judges Lisa K. Stark, Thomas M. Hruz, and Mark Seidl.
The panel, reversing Polk County Circuit Judge Daniel J. Tolan, ordered that evidence found in the resulting search be suppressed.
Deputy Del Stone stopped Tyler Thompson shortly after midnight for a "rolling stop" at a stop sign as Thompson drove away from a house Stone was monitoring for suspected drug activity.
Stone testified in Circuit Court that Thompson appeared extremely nervous and that he denied failing to come to a full stop. Stone questioned Thompson about where he was coming from and about his residence, and told Thompson that he was driving in the wrong direction.
Thompson told Stone he did not know anyone at the residence he just left and that he was helping a friend move.
Stone already knew that Thompson's truck was properly registered and returned to his squad to run a criminal background check on Thompson. He also ran a criminal background check on the friend Thompson said he was helping.
Another deputy, Anthony Puetz, arrived at the scene and Stone got out of the squad. Stone testified that he told Puetz there was reasonable suspicion to believe drugs were in the truck.
Stone returned to his police car; Puetz and Thompson had a lengthy conversation that included Thompson describing his job. Puetz also told Thompson police were investigating drug activity in the area and that he thought Stone was going to get a drug dog to sniff around the truck.
"Thompson then admitted that he had 'a half ounce' in his car," referring to cannabis, the appeals panel wrote. Puetz, when he searched, also found methamphetamine.
Stone testified that he thought he detained Thompson 10 to 15 minutes before Puetz arrived. Stone did not see or smell marijuana or other drugs. He testified that Thompson did not appear to be under the influence of any intoxicants.
After the search, Stone issued a verbal warning for the rolling stop.
After Tolan, the circuit court judge, denied Thompson's motion to suppress, Thompson pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia charges. The possession of methamphetamine charges were dismissed as part of a plea deal.
He was sentenced to 18 months' probation.
The appeals panel said that a traffic stop may last no longer than necessary to deal with the violation and related safety concerns. An officer may also make ordinary inquiries, like checking a driver's license, finding out whether there are outstanding warrants for the driver, and checking the vehicle's registration and insurance.
"Such ordinary inquiries parallel the objectives of enforcing the traffic code; they ensure that vehicles on the road are operated lawfully, safely and responsibly," the panel said.
The panel rejected the state's argument that the prolonged stop was allowable because the deputies had reasonable suspicion to believe Thompson was involved in drugs.
"Importantly, there was no basis offered at the suppression hearing to substantiate the officers’ suspicion that the residence they were observing was involved in narcotics distribution," the panel said. "The officers were not asked to explain why they suspected the house in the first instance. Again, 'reasonable suspicion' requires specific and articulable facts to justify the intrusion."
"Absent the connection to the suspected drug house, the state is left to rely on the time of night (around midnight), tinted windows, a very nervous driver, and what the officers viewed as an inadequate explanation for Thompson’s activity and direction of travel," the panel said. "These are not 'specific and articulable facts' suggesting Thompson was involved in a drug offense at the time of the traffic stop. The officers did not observe any contraband, they did not smell marijuana or other prohibited substances, and Thompson did not appear under the influence of any controlled substances."
"Given the totality of the circumstances here, the detention ranged beyond the length necessary to address a minor moving violation, and indeed the officers appeared to have been ready to prolong the stop even longer but for Thompson’s admission to possessing marijuana and related contraband," the panel said.
Thompson was represented on appeal by Assistant State Public Defender Cary Bloodworth.
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