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The Fourth Circuit Finds that the Police Can’t Assume You’re A Drug Trafficker Just Because You Clean Your Car, Have Toiletries, and Don’t Want Your Shirts Wrinkled

What good is a hunch if you can’t say why you have it? If you want to stay inside the Fourth Amendment, not much.

Stephen Digiovanni was driving through Maryland. He was stopped by the Maryland State Police for following too close to another car.

The officer who pulled him over, though, was a member of a Pro-Active Criminal Enforcement Team, a task force set up to investigate drug and terrorist activities. When the officer pulled Mr. Digiovanni over, he didn’t see a man in his late fifties driving from Florida to Boston. No, this officer saw a drug trafficker.*

How did the officer know Mr. Digiovanni was a drug trafficker? The officer explained it was a combination of little things. For one thing, Mr. Digiovanni’s car was clean. Also, it was a rental car. And he had some shirts hanging up in the back seat. Also, he had a hygiene bag with him. So, naturally, the officer suspected Mr. Digiovanni of being a drug trafficker.

The officer asked Mr. Digiovanni to step out of the car. He asked Mr. Digiovanni what his travel plans were and whether he had drugs. Mr. Digiovanni said he was traveling back to Boston from a trip to Florida and that he didn’t have any drugs with him.

The officer asked Mr. Digiovanni if he specifically had any marijuana in the car. Mr. Digiovanni said that he had never smoked marijuana because it puts him to sleep.**

The officer asked if he could search the car. Mr. Digiovanni said ok. Luckily for him, he had trouble opening the trunk, so the officer gave up after three minutes, went back to the police car, and ran his license and registration.

When the license and registration check came back negative, the officer brought Mr. Digiovanni a warning ticket, his license, and his rental car registration. The officer told him that he was free to go, but his earlier consent to search was still in effect and couldn’t be withdrawn. He gave Mr. Digiovanni a written consent to search form, which Mr. Digiovanni signed.

The officer, and a backup, found just over 34,000 pills of Oxycodone. He was charged in federal court in Baltimore with possession with intent to distribute Oxycodone.

Mr. Digiovanni filed a motion to suppress the pills taken from his car. The Honorable Catherine C. Blake, widely know as a wise and fair jurist, granted the motion.

By way of background, a police officer can, of course, pull a driver over for a violation of the traffic law. But the officer can’t keep a person pulled over for longer than giving them the traffic ticket would take, unless the officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person driving the car has committed a crime.

Judge Blake determined that the officer kept Mr. Digiovanni by the side of the road longer than necessary to run his license and issue a warning ticket. She found there was no reasonable suspicion of him as a drug dealer, since, as the Fourth Circuit put it, his “appearance and demeanor fit in the category of a retired person, one driving from Florida to the northeast.”

Judge Blake found the officer’s reliance on Mr. Digiovanni’s clean car, his shirts hanging so that they wouldn’t wrinkle, and his toiletry kit “suspect, because he offered no ‘reasonable explanation’ for relying on these factors.”

Because the officer took longer than he needed to run the license and issue a warning ticket, and he had no reason he could point to for why he thought Mr. Digiovanni was suspicious, the permission that Mr. Digiovanni gave to search his care later was tainted by the officer’s prior illegal detention. Thus, the evidence was suppressed.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed in United States v. Digiovanni.

* As it happens, he was right.

** Right. It doesn’t really make sense.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.