The Scope of Police Questioning during a Routine Traffic Stop: Do Questions outside the Scope of the Original Justification for the Stop Create Impermissible Seizures If They Do Not Prolong the Stop?

By Lawrence, Bill | Fordham Urban Law Journal, September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Scope of Police Questioning during a Routine Traffic Stop: Do Questions outside the Scope of the Original Justification for the Stop Create Impermissible Seizures If They Do Not Prolong the Stop?


Lawrence, Bill, Fordham Urban Law Journal


INTRODUCTION

A police officer makes a routine traffic stop of a vehicle with a cracked windshield? He questions the driver about the windshield and asks for the driver's license and registration. (2) While the officer checks the documentation, he asks the driver whether he has any illegal narcotics in the car. (3) The driver says 'no,' and the officer asks for consent to search the vehicle. (4) After the driver consents, the officer discovers cocaine on the driver's side of the car. (5)

In the prosecution for the possession of cocaine, the defendant argues that his consent was tainted by the officer's question about illegal narcotics because it was outside the scope of the original justification for the stop--the cracked windshield. (6) The defendant claims that the officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights (7) because the question about illegal narcotics gave rise to an unreasonable seizure. (8) A court agrees and rules that the consent was invalid and that the evidence must be suppressed. (9)

The situation described above occurs frequently, with many courts ruling similarly to this one. (10) Accordingly, the issue this Note addresses is whether a police officer, during a routine traffic stop, violates a person's Fourth Amendment rights when the officer's questions stray from the original reason for the stop. Resolution of the issue pits privacy concerns against the state's interest in effective law enforcement. (11) With circuits split over the issue, (12) and the Supreme Court not yet plainly ruling on it, (13) this Note aims to provide a narrow solution to the problem.

Part I of this Note explains the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard and discusses the line of Supreme Court cases from Terry v. Ohio (14) to Florida v. Bostick (15) that deal with the permissible scope of questioning during a stop. Part II introduces the split between the Fifth and Seventh Circuits and the Eighth, Ninth, and, Tenth Circuits, highlighting the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit in United States v. Childs. (16) Further, Part II discusses the balance between privacy concerns and effective law enforcement and shows that the arguments are important because the Supreme Court has not yet directly ruled on the issue) (7) Part III of this Note proposes that courts consider the narrow holding in Childs. This Note concludes that in the routine traffic stop situation, effective police work outweighs the minimal privacy interest.

I. THE FOURTH AMENDMENT REASONABLENESS STANDARD

The Fourth Amendment provides, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated." (18) To trigger the protection of the amendment, an officer must commit an unreasonable search or seizure. (19) Problems arise, however, in determining whether an unreasonable search or seizure has occurred. (20) This Note centers on the seizure component within the context of a routine traffic stop.

Put simply, a seizure occurs if a police officer causes a reasonable person to feel as though he cannot walk away or terminate the encounter. (21) Within this definition, a routine traffic stop of a motor vehicle constitutes a limited seizure and may trigger the Terry doctrine. (22) Under the Terry doctrine, an officer may stop a suspect and detain her briefly to investigate reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. (23) Because the Terry doctrine may apply to motor vehicle stops as well, if, as in the introductory situation, a driver commits a traffic violation, a police officer may stop the driver for as long as it takes to write a ticket for the violation. (24) Moreover, the Terry doctrine provides that in determining whether a search or seizure was unreasonable, courts consider whether the original reason for the officer's actions was justifiable and whether it was reasonably related in scope to the original circumstances.

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