By Sophia Blair
On March 30, 2017, the Fourth Circuit issued a published criminal opinion, United States v. Hill. Donald Hill (“Hill”) pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). However, he appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress his statements and a firearm seized during a traffic stop because he alleged that the police officers’ actions exceeded the scope of the stop. Specifically, he alleged that the stop continued beyond the justifiable amount of time needed, thereby violating his Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Hill’s motion to suppress because the stop’s duration was reasonable to complete the tasks incident to the stop.
Facts of the Stop
On October 20, 2014, two police officers patrolling in Richmond, pulled over a car because it was driving over the speed limit and crossed a double-yellow line. The officers recognized both Jeremy Taylor (“Taylor”), the driver, and Hill, the passenger from previous interactions. After Taylor produced his driver’s license, one of the officers returned to the police cruiser to confirm the identity of both men in the Department of Motor Vehicles database, and to check whether either of the men had outstanding warrants on the National Crime Information Center database. The officer discovered that Taylor’s license was suspended. The officer briefly interrupted writing the relevant summons to check for both men in the PISTOL system, which tracks individuals’ prior contacts with the police. There he found that both men were connected with drug activity and were “likely armed.” The officer in the patrol car called for a K-9 unit and continued writing the summons.
The second officer made small talk with both men while the first officer wrote the summons and asked them three times whether they had drugs or firearms in the car. After the third question, Hill admitted that he had a firearm on his person. The officer shouted “gun” and the K-9 unit arrived on the scene almost simultaneously. The district court determined that twenty minutes elapsed between the initiation of the stop and the time the gun was discovered.
Hill argued that the length of the stop exceeded a lawful duration because the second officer talked to him and Taylor instead of helping the first officer search the databases. He also challenged the call to the K-9 unit and searching the PISTOL database. Hill argued that the cumulative effect was to deprive him of his Fourth Amendment Rights under Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015).
The Duration and Scope of the Stop Did Not Violate the Fourth Amendment
In order to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, a traffic stop must be legitimate at its inception and the officers’ actions during the stop must be reasonably related in scope to the basis for the stop. Because Hill did not contest that the stop was legitimate at its inception, the Fourth Circuit limited its analysis to whether the officers’ actions were reasonably within the scope of the basis for the stop.
Determining the reasonable length of a stop is not a mathematical endeavor; instead a court determines reasonableness by looking at what police in fact do and whether the officers acted reasonably under the totality of the circumstances. Additionally, officers may undertake investigative techniques unrelated to the underlying traffic infraction without offending the Fourth Amendment as long as the activity does not prolong the duration of the stop.
In analyzing the unfolding of the stop at issue, the Fourth Circuit did not observe any evidence that suggested that either of the officers delayed the completion of the traffic stop. The officers accounted for eighteen minutes of the twenty minute stop, and the Fourth Circuit did not find that the additional two minutes unlawfully extended the duration of the stop. Moreover, the first officer had not finished writing the summons when the second officer yelled “gun.”
The Fourth Circuit also held that the officer’s decision to search PISTOL did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the Fourth Amendment does not require the officers to use the least intrusive means possible to complete a stop. Searching PISTOL was material to the officers insuring their safety in furtherance of their duties. Because of the inherent safety risks during a traffic stop, the Fourth Circuit also held that the second officer’s choice to stand by the stopped vehicle instead of helping to search the database was reasonable. Finally, requesting the K-9 unit did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the call did not extend the duration of the stop.
Because the officers exercised reasonable diligence in executing the traffic stop, the stop was not impermissibly prolonged. The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Hill’s motion to suppress evidence.