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Not all traffic stops can come with dog sniffs

Charles Williams, Jr. was driving a rented car through central North Carolina in February 2012 when he was stopped for speeding. As is typical in a traffic stop, the deputy sheriff collected Williams’s documentation, issued a written warning, and then returned the documents. After all that occurred, a second deputy conducted a dog sniff of the car. The dog alerted to the trunk of the car and a search revealed crack cocaine in the trunk. Williams and his girlfriend were both arrested.1

Like most Fourth Amendment cases, this one turns on a constellation of facts that are uniquely arrayed in the case. But, since traffic stops and subsequent dog sniffs happen so frequently, the issue of what is reasonable articulable suspicion sufficient to extend a routine traffic stop into an investigatory stop matters.

Procedurally, at the district court level the case was somewhat unusual in that there were two hearings on the same suppression issue, necessitated by the government’s tardy disclosure of a second video from the stop that contradicted testimony at the first hearing.

The facts of the case as developed at the two hearings were largely uncontested. The evidence was that Williams’s rental car was observed going 80 mph in a 70-mph zone. The stretch of I–85 where the traffic stop happened was a “known drug trafficking corridor.” During the stop, the deputy learned that the car had been rented in New Jersey and was due back in New Jersey the same day as the stop.

While the deputy was conducting the stop, Williams was asked to wait in the deputy’s patrol car. While he was in the car, Williams told the deputy that he was travelling to Charlotte to visit his brother. During this conversation, the deputy believed he smelled alcohol on Williams’s breath. Williams stated he had drank a beer with dinner.

As a result, the deputy asked a second deputy, who had stopped Williams’s brother in a related traffic stop at the same time and place to assist by conducting an breathalyzer test. While the second deputy conducted the test, the first deputy spoke with Williams’s girlfriend.

She stated that they were on vacation and headed to Charlotte. She did not state that they were planning to visit Williams’s brother there. During that conversation, the deputy administering the breath test spoke with Williams. Williams told him that he was travelling with his brother, the driver of the other car. This statement, according to the deputy, contradicted the statement of the other driver who stated he was not travelling with anyone.

Williams passed the breath test. He was then given a written warning. As an address for the warning, he gave a post office box that was different that the post office box listed on his driver’s license. While the one deputy was writing the warning, the other asked Williams once more about his trip. Williams stated they were going to Charlotte to visit his brother. He added they would stay in the Wyndam hotel there, but was not sure how long they would stay. When the deputy pointed out that the car was due back in New Jersey that day, Williams said he would renew the rental once he got to Charlotte.

Here, the exact timing of events was crucial to the case. At 12:54:59 am Williams received his warning. Right after, he was asked whether he had anything illegal in the car. He said no, but equivocated as to whether they could search his car. When asked for a clear answer, Williams said “No.”

Then at 12:56:22 am, a minute and twenty-three seconds after the written warning was issued, the officers told Williams to “hold on” so they could conduct a dog sniff. The dor alerted at 12:59:02 am, two minutes and forty seconds after they hold Williams to “hold on.” Crack cocaine was subsequently found in the car’s trunk.

At the first hearing, the district court found that reasonable articulable suspicion to hold Williams at the scene after the traffic warning had been issued based on five factors:

  • Williams was in a rented car;
  • That section of highway was a “known drug corridor” and they were driving on it at 12:37am;
  • Williams’s stated travel plans were not consistent with his rental agreement’s return date;
  • Williams could not provide a home address in New York even though he said he lived there and had a New York-issued driver’s license; and
  • Williams said he was travelling with the car in front of him, but that driver said he did not know Williams.

As an alternate ground, the district court the delay to conduct the dog sniff was de minimis and did not “offend the Fourth Amendment.”

After the first hearing the government provided the second video. That video directly contradicted the fifth factor upon which the initial ruling relied upon. The district court’s second opinion dropped the fifth factor, but nonetheless said the remaining four factors supported a finding of reasonable articulable suspicion. The district court again offered the alternate finding of a de minimis delay to support the search.

This opinion was the first reported Fourth Circuit opinion regarding a traffic stop since Rodriguez v. United States was decided. In that case, the Supreme Court held that absent reasonable articulable suspicion, an officer may not extend an already completed traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff. Thus, this case was the Fourth Circuit’s first chance to revisit its reasonable articulable suspicion jurisprudence in light of Rodriguez.

On appeal, the government conceded that the de minimis delay ground for denying the motion was “legally untenable.” The case, therefore, turned on whether the remaining four factors were sufficient to support reasonable articulable suspicion for the detention of Williams after the traffic stop was completed. The opinion is not clear whether the concession came before or after Rodriguez was decided, but Rodriguez’s holding is clear that any detention for a dog sniff that occurs after a traffic stop is over must be supported by reasonable articulable suspicion.

Traffic stop case law is full of cases aggregating otherwise innocent activities into something that courts find to be suspicious enough to justify a Terry stop. Williams is a refreshing case because the Fourth Circuit found that four innocent, even if somewhat out-of-the-ordinary, facts taken together amounted to nothing more than a collection of innocent facts.

For example, the Court found no link between rented cars and drug trafficking. Indeed, “the overwhelming majority of rental car drivers on our nation’s highways are innocent travelers with entirely legitimate purposes.” Next, even if I–85 is used by many drug traffickers, it is also used by many drivers who want to get from Point A to Point B quickly. Further, driving on the highway at night did not help the government here as neither officer could link that to any specific pattern of drug trafficking in the area, beyond a broad generalization.

The Court then found that driving on a soon-to-expire rental agreement might, in connection with other factors, support reasonable articulable suspicion, but none of those other factors were present in this case. Likewise, William’s failure to given a home address other than a P.O. Box was not on its own suspicious, not least because the officers never asked Williams to provide a physical address.

The opinion stresses that each of these factors could, in combination with other factors, give rise to reasonable articulable suspicion. But, at least in this case, their combination did not “reasonably point[] to criminal activity.” The opinion repeatedly points out that the officers’ testimony was conclusory as to why they were suspicious. In future cases, the government will likely utilize experts to tie facts such as these to other drug trafficking cases. For now, however, Williamsand Rodriguez have nudged Terry back in the direction of protecting the Fourth Amendment instead of a blank check to officers conducting traffic stops.

Mr. Williams was represented by a team of attorneys including: Gregory Davis from the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Middle District of North Carolina; Amber Will, Patricia Roberts, Brittany Sadler, and Andrew Steinberg from the William & Mary School of Law; and Tillman Breckenridge and Thomas Ports, Jr., from Reed Smith LLP. Congratulations to Mr. Williams’s entire team.

Andrew Szekely is a Greenbelt-based criminal defense attorney with a practice specializing in federal criminal defense and serious state-court crimes in Maryland and the District of Columbia. He also maintains an active appellate, post-conviction, and habeas corpus practice.

1. His girlfriend was acquitted at trial.