By Kelsey Mellan
On February 23, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published opinion in United States v. Hill, a criminal appeal on behalf of two defendants. Defendant-Appellants Darren Hill (“Hill”) and Lloyd Dodwell (“Dodwell”) appealed the Western District of North Carolina’s denial of their motion to suppress evidence pertaining to an allegedly unconstitutional traffic stop in 2012. The Defendants argue this traffic stop violated their Fourth Amendment search and seizure rights. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of the motion to suppress, determining that the stop did not offend its Fourth Amendment jurisprudence at the time it occurred.
Facts & Procedural History
On May 2, 2012, Defendants were traveling in an SUV through Henderson County, North Carolina. Deputy David McMurray (“Deputy McMurray”) was patrolling the area when he noticed Defendants’ SUV traveling closely behind another vehicle. Deputy McMurray subsequently pulled over Defendant’s and approached their vehicle. Dodwell was driving and Hill was in the passenger seat. After Deputy McMurray explained the stop, Dodwell admitted to following too closely. Deputy McMurray then asked Dodwell to exit the vehicle and follow him to his patrol car so he could issue a warning ticket. While Deputy McMurray was entering the ticket information, he engaged Dodwell in conversation. Some of Deputy McMurray’s questions pertained to the stop and others ranged to more personal, off-topic questions. Specifically, Deputy McMurray asked Dodwell who owned the vehicle – to which Dodwell answered that he it belonged to either Hill’s girlfriend or sister. Upon questioning, Dodwell also acknowledged that he had previously been arrested for drugs.
Deputy McMurray then returned to the vehicle to speak with Hill to determine who owned the vehicle. While speaking with Deputy McMurray, Hill made numerous statements that conflicted with information Dodwell provided. As he later testified, Deputy McMurray became concerned that some criminal activity was occurring because of Defendants’ contradictory statements and nervous behavior, and the confusion over the owner of the SUV. Moreover, Defendants were traveling from Atlanta which, according to the government, is the “largest source of narcotics on the east coast.” in a type of vehicle commonly used for drug trafficking. After further discussion with each Defendant, Deputy McMurray notified them he was going to call for another deputy so he could run his drug-detection dog around the SUV. He explained that he would only search the vehicle of the drug-detection dog alerted, but would not search if the dog did not alert. Both Defendants consented to this search.
As a result of the search, Deputy McMurray and his team found over $30,000 of bundled U.S. currency, which Deputy McMurray believed to be drug proceeds. During the search, another officer on the scene read Defendants their Miranda rights and each Defendant consented to questioning. The rest of the search revealed no other contraband in the SUV. Ten days later while reviewing the recording of the stop, Deputy McMurray saw that Hill had deposited a bag containing cocaine hydrochloride behind the patrol car’s driver seat.
A grand jury indicted Defendants for possession with intent to distribute at least 500 grams of cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Both Defendants filed a motion to suppress which the magistrate joined for hearing. After the hearing, the magistrate recommended that the district court deny Defendants’ motion. Defendants generally objected to the magistrate’s memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”) on the grounds that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court accepted the M&R and denied Defendants’ motion to suppress in full because (1) Deputy McMurray did not unreasonably extend the traffic stop prior to issuing the ticket and (2) Deputy McMurray’s post-ticket extension was justified by both reasonable suspicion and Defendants’ consent.
Defendants’ Fourth Amendment Challenge
On appeal, Defendants argue that Deputy McMurray impermissibly extended the traffic stop both before and after issuing a warning ticket, based on Supreme Court precedent from Rodriguez v. United States and Fourth Circuit precedent set in United States v. Williams. The government argues that any de minimis pre-ticket delay was allowed under governing precedent at the time of the stop. Moreover, the government claims Defendants waived their rights to challenge the reasonableness of the post-ticket extension by failing to sufficiently object on that ground.
The Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” According to the Supreme Court in Illinois v. Caballes, a routine traffic stop becomes an unreasonable seizure when law enforcement impermissibly exceeds the stop’s scope or duration. The Supreme Court limited the permissible scope and duration of a traffic stop in Terry v. Ohio. If a traffic stop strays outside the boundaries of its permissible scope or duration, the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule normally prevents the government from using evidence obtained during said search against the victim of the illegal seizure. The Supreme Court explained an exception to this exclusionary rule in Davis v. United States – the good-faith doctrine. This doctrine protects law enforcement action taken in “objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent” at the time of the search or seizure. The Fourth Circuit determined this doctrine applies in this case.
Yet, Defendants asked the Fourth Circuit to analyze Deputy McMurray’s conduct in 2012 under the standards set out in Rodriguez and Williams – cases that were not decided until 2015. Defendants argued that Deputy McMurray violated their Fourth Amendment rights by asking off-topic questions before writing a ticket. But when this search was conducted in 2012, the Fourth Circuit’s binding precedent set in United States v. Digiovanni held that questioning or other activity unrelated to the initial purposes of the stop only rendered the stop unreasonable if the officer “failed to diligently pursue the purposes of the stop.” In Digiovanni, the Fourth Circuit determined that de minimis delay in issuing a ticket warranted suppression only when an officer did not begin, or completely abandoned, actions related to the cited purpose of the stop.
In this case, the Fourth Circuit decided that the record sufficiently demonstrates that Deputy McMurray’s questions were in continuance of the pursuit of activities related to the initial stop. Moreover, the Deputy continued issuing the warning throughout the pre-ticket process. Although his questions may have been off-topic, Deputy McMurray never strayed from diligently pursuing the purposes of the stop. Moreover, Defendants effectively waived their challenge to any post-ticket extension by failing to specifically object on those grounds before the district court. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit deemed this stop constitutional.
Thus, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court.