By: Matthew Welch & Gilbert Smolenski
On March 1, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit published an opinion for United States v. Brian Bowman. The court held that Bowman’s Fourth Amendment right, freedom from unreasonable seizures, was violated and reversed the district court ruling.
I. Facts and Procedural History
In the predawn hours the morning of June 20, 2015, Officer Waycaster was patrolling on Route 25 in Henderson County, North Carolina. He received a tip from the DEA that two individuals driving a red, older model Lexus could be narcotics runners. The DEA also provided a license plate number for the car. At 3:40 a.m., Officer Waycaster spotted an older red Lexus. Rather than stopping the vehicle based on information from the DEA, Officer Waycaster followed the car “looking for [his] own infractions . . . for [his own] reason to stop the vehicle.” When the vehicle weaved over a fog line and accelerated to 10 mph over the speed limit, Officer Waycaster pulled the vehicle over, suspecting that the driver may have been under the influence. The government agrees that the DEA tip should not be considered in any legal analysis.
After stopping the vehicle, Officer Waycaster noticed two men in the vehicle: Bowman, the driver, and Alvarez, the passenger. Officer Waycaster testified that Bowman appeared nervous because his hands were shaking, he failed to make eye contact with Waycaster, and that his carotid artery was moving, indicating an elevated heart rate. Officer Waycaster did not see any alcohol or firearms in the vehicle, but he did notice an energy drink in the center console, food wrappers, and a suitcase in the back seat. Officer Waycaster explained why Bowman was stopped and then asked Bowman to exit the vehicle and go to the patrol car so that Officer Waycaster could check his information. Alvarez remained in the passenger seat the entire time.
After Bowman exited the vehicle, he consented to a weapons frisk. Officer Waycaster found no weapons. Officer Waycaster then told Bowman to sit in the patrol car while Waycaster ran his driver’s license and registration. While Officer Waycaster was running Bowman’s information, he asked Bowman where he was coming from. Bowman said that he was heading home after picking up Alvarez from Alvarez’s girlfriend’s house. He said he was returning the favor because Alvarez had done the same for him in the past. When questioned about the address of Alvarez’s girlfriend’s house, Bowman said he did not know it but that it was in his car’s GPS. Officer Waycaster also asked Bowman what he did for a living. Bowman replied, saying that he was a welder but was currently unemployed. Bowman also said that he recently bought the Lexus off Craigslist. Officer Bowman testified that this was a suspicious activity because “it was a known practice with narcotics traffickers to either use rental vehicles or use multiple, different vehicles, or buy and sell vehicles to transport narcotics.” Officer Waycaster, believing that Bowman was not under the influence, then issued Bowman a ticket for speeding and unsafe movement of the vehicle.
Bowman then began to exit the vehicle but Officer Waycaster asked if he could speak further with Bowman. Bowman consented. After another round of questions about what Bowman and Alvarez had been doing that night, Officer Waycaster, who was seated in the patrol car with Bowman said that he “was going to ask [Alvarez] questions if you don’t mind, okay?” Bowman responded, “okay,” and remained in the vehicle. As Officer Waycaster exited the patrol car he told Bowman, “just hang tight right there, okay.” Bowman responded with, “oh, okay.” Office Waycaster testified that at this point, Bowman was not free to get out of the patrol car because Waycaster had developed, from the traffic stop alone, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.
Office Waycaster then went back to the Lexus and interviewed Alvarez about what had transpired before the two men were pulled over. Alvarez’s story conflicted with Bowman’s. Officer Waycaster then return to the patrol car and asked Bowman if there was meth in the Lexus, to which Bowman responded no. Bowman then refused to let Officer Waycaster search the Lexus. Thereafter, Officer Waycaster removed Alvarez from the Lexus and placed him in the patrol car with Bowman. Then Office Waycaster summoned a K-9 team. The K-9 team passed around the outside of the Lexus. The dog alerted an officer that illegal narcotics were present in the vehicle. Thereafter, Office Waycaster and the K-9 handler searched the interior of the car. They found meth, digital scales, and containers of ammunition.
Bowman was charged with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Bowman filed a motion to suppress the methamphetamine evidence, arguing that Officer Waycaster unlawfully prolonged the completed traffic stop without consent or reasonable suspicion. The district court followed the recommendation of the magistrate judge in denying the motion to suppress. The magistrate judge admitted that Bowman was not free to leave the patrol car but that the prolonged detention was permissible because “Waycaster had a justified, reasonable suspicion that Defendant Bowman was engaged in criminal activity.” The judge said that the totality of the circumstances supported this finding. Bowman then filed an appeal.
II. Standard of Review
The Fourth Circuit reviews the district court’s determination that the officer had a reasonable suspicion to prolong the traffic stop de novo.
First, a traffic stop must be reasonable. Here, Bowman does not challenge the reasonableness of the traffic stop. Bowman was swerving and traveling 10 mph over the speed limit. Instead Bowman’s Fourth Amendment challenge rests on the unreasonableness of his prolonged detention in the patrol car. The Fourth Amendment allows an officer to conduct an investigation unrelated to the reasons for the traffic stop as long as it does not lengthen the roadside detention. To extend the length of the detention beyond the time necessary to accomplish the traffic stop’s purpose, an officer must have reasonable suspicion or receive the driver’s consent. Here, the officer did not receive Bowman’s consent or have a reasonable suspicion.
The government argued that Bowman consented to the prolonged detention when he said “okay” after Officer Waycaster asked him to “hang tight right there, ok?” However, under a reasonable person standard, the court said that this was not consent by Bowman. Bowman never had time to respond to Officer Waycaster before Waycaster exited the vehicle and many would feel they were not free to leave in a similar situation. Furthermore, Waycaster was not asking a question, instead he was instructing Bowman what to do. Thus, when Bowman remained in the patrol car as the officer went to question Alvarez, the encounter was no longer a consensual one but instead became a non-consensual seizure.
After the Fourth Circuit concluded the search constituted a non-consensual seizure, the Court then analyzed whether Waycaster’s “prolonged seizure was justified by reasonable suspicion.” The Court noted there is no precise definition for what constitutes reasonable suspicion. Instead, reasonable suspicion is a commonsense, nontechnical standard that considers the realities of everyday life. The bar for reasonable suspicion is less than the probable cause standard and the facts articulated by the stopping officer and trial court must be taken in their totality. However, each factor can be analyzed separately by the court before being taken together in a full consideration of the circumstances surrounding the traffic stop.
The Fourth Circuit focuses on four specific factors in its analysis. First, Waycaster noted that both Bowman and Alvarez appeared to be nervous. However, a driver’s nervousness is not a good indicator since most citizens are nervous when dealing with police. The record indicated that Bowman and Alvarez did not exhibit any signs of nervousness above the norm, and the government conceded Bowman was calm once exiting the vehicle. Moreover, although a suspect’s increased heart rate, which can be evidenced by a suspect’s throbbing carotid artery, can help support there was a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, the present facts do not show Bowman demonstrated nervousness beyond the norm. The fact that Bowman remained calm in the patrol car and failed to make eye contact with an officer is not indicative of criminal behavior. Thus, the first factor weighed in favor of the Bowman.
Second, Waycaster stated that several articles in the car, specifically clothes, food, and an energy drink, helped give rise to a reasonable suspicion. However, these items are consistent with innocent travel and “in the absence of contradictory information,” cannot reasonably imply criminal activity. While Bowman may have made false statements about his travel plans, the government failed to connect that fact to any wrongdoing in the case. Therefore, just the articles alone cannot be used to established untruthfulness, and subsequently reasonable suspicion.
Third, the district court noted that Bowman’s inability to recall Alvarez’s girlfriend’s address contributed to Waycaster’s reasonable suspicion. But, the Fourth Circuit stated this was entirely reasonable, as it is clear from the video recording that Bowman repeatedly said he used the car’s GPS to find the house, and Waycaster could find the address by looking at the car’s GPS history. The government failed to connect Bowman’s response with criminal activity, and the Fourth Circuit stated it is reasonable that Bowman did not know the address and was relying on GPS in a dark, unfamiliar area.
Finally, Waycaster believed Bowman’s vehicle purchases gave suspicion of criminal activity since he thought it was strange Bowman could afford to purchase multiple vehicles while unemployed and the use of multiple cars was a known practice of drug traffickers. The Fourth Circuit readily disposed of Bowman’s vehicle purchasing habits, noting that Waycaster made “unsubstantiated assumptions.” Even though Bowman was unemployed, there are numerous possible explanations to explain the car purchases that are all within the confines of the law. Likewise, innocent travelers may use multiple vehicles, some of which they could buy from Craigslist, and that fact is entitled to little weight.
Consequently, none of the factors alone provide a basis for reasonable suspicion. Even when looking at the totality of the circumstances, as mandated by precedent, the Fourth Circuit similarly found that the “combination of wholly innocent factors” did not give rise to reasonable suspicion. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court, as Bowman’s motion to suppress should have been granted.