Question: May a peace officer prolong the length of the traffic stop beyond the time necessary to issue a citation for a broken headlight in order to wait for the K-9 unit to arrive?
Quick Answer: No, an officer may only extend a traffic stop if there is reasonable suspicion. Otherwise, the officer must conduct a K-9 sniff of the vehicle during the time required to effectuate the original purpose of the stop.
Facts: An officer stopped defendant Curtis Elliott at 7:07 p.m. for having a broken taillight. According to the officer, Elliott’s pupils were extremely dilated, and he seemed disoriented and lethargic. However, the officer didn’t smell alcohol or marijuana. Elliott declined consent to search the car, but he did grant the officer consent to search his person, which resulted in finding nothing illegal. At 7:13 p.m., the officer went back in his cruiser and ran a check of the defendant’s license on his computer. Sometime shortly thereafter, the officer requested a K-9 unit. Thirty-six minutes later, the officer was notified that the K-9 unit was not coming. At that point, the officer decided to administer the standard field sobriety tests. According to the officer, Elliott failed two of the three field sobriety tests and did not complete the third test. The officer then placed Elliott under arrest for OVI.
Why this case is important: When an officer stops a vehicle for a traffic violation, the officer may detain the driver for a period of time sufficient to issue the motorist a citation and to perform routine procedures such as a computer check on the driver’s license, registration, and vehicle plates. If the circumstances give rise to reasonable suspicion of some other illegal activity, different from that which triggered the stop, the officer may detain the driver for as long as the new articulable reasonable suspicion exists. Without additional reasonable suspicion, the officer may conduct a K-9 sniff of the vehicle during the time required to effectuate the original purpose of the stop.
Keep in mind: When you make a traffic stop, the clock starts ticking immediately. If you call for a K-9 unit — but don’t have any specific reason to believe there are drugs in the car — you must proceed with the stop normally. You cannot detain a person longer than necessary to complete the purpose of the stop. Here, the officer prolonged the traffic stop in order to wait for a K-9 unit to arrive. It was not until the officer was informed that the K-9 unit was not coming that he asked Elliott to submit to the field sobriety tests. Had the officer truly suspected Elliott was under the influence, he could have used the half-hour wait period to conduct the field sobriety tests and write the traffic citation for the broken taillight.
Visit the Seventh District Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.
Notable case with similar facts: U.S. v. Riley — Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota), July 13, 2012
During the course of a valid traffic stop, the officer developed reasonable suspicion to detain Mario Riley to search his vehicle. First, Riley exhibited undue nervousness in the form of a visibly elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, and repetitive gesticulations, such as “wiping his face and scratching his head.” Second, Riley gave vague or conflicting answers to simple questions about his travel itinerary. Finally, Riley misrepresented his criminal history to the officer by omitting his prior drug violations and felony arrests.
The court held that the 54 minutes spent waiting for a drug-detection dog to arrive was reasonable. The officer called for the drug-detection dog within 11 minutes of his initial stop and immediately after he established reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot. No drug-detection dogs were available in the area, so the officer called in an off-duty officer to come to the scene.
The court found that the amount of time spent waiting for the drug-detection dog to arrive was unavoidable and reasonable based on the diligence shown by the officer.
Visit the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.