Chicken Scratch Citation Is Just Fine

United States v. Salkil, 2021 WL 3745206 (8th Cir. 2021)

I’m old school. My first patrol car was a 1979 Pontiac LeMans (man, it went fast!). That car had a chain-driven light bar and a four-channel radio. I used a baton made from hickory wood (my deputy sheriff daughter has it now and it still works just fine). I wrote traffic citations in the days of quiet quotas. And I wrote them by hand. James Lawrence Salkil got a citation written by hand and complained that it was not computer-generated. Kids these days! Let’s dig into the facts of the case to see if the old school ways hold up.

Sergeant Joshua Paul stopped Salkil because the rear license plate of his vehicle was not illuminated by light bulbs as required by state law. When Sergeant Paul ran a computer check, he learned that Salkil had “recent involvement” with Jamie Fulton “in which guns and drugs were located on a search warrant.” A backup officer arrived. For 37 seconds, Sergeant Paul asked Salkil about his connection to Fulton. Sergeant Paul had the second officer start writing a warning citation for the license plate light violation.

Sergeant Paul asked Salkil for consent to search the car. Salkil immediately consented. The consent occurred about 10 minutes and 45 seconds after first contact. Sergeant Paul found a scale with white residue in the center console. He also found a handgun in Salkil’s waistband, as well as methamphetamine and a pipe in his pocket. Sergeant Paul arrested Salkil. The ticket-writing process had consumed between three and four minutes before it was interrupted by the arrest.

Salkil asked the trial court to suppress the gun and drugs, claiming the officers unlawfully prolonged the traffic stop. The court denied the motion. Salkil appealed.

He claimed writing the “warning by hand improperly extended the stop, because the officer chose a slower method than generating the warning by computer.”

The trial court analyzed the duration of the stop with close reference to a stopwatch. Sergeant Paul testified that traffic stops generally take about 12 minutes from the beginning of the stop until the vehicle is released. Sergeant Paul asked and Salkil consented to the search 10 minutes and 45 seconds after his first contact with Sergeant Paul. Finding the consent to have been given within the 12-minute mark, the trial judge found it was given within a proper time frame; the appellate court agreed. Note: Many other courts have discussed the length of a “routine” traffic stop—please don’t read too much into the 12-minute time frame. It is not a magic number.

Salkil also argued the questions about his connection to Fulton impermissibly extended the stop – by 37 seconds! Again applying the stopwatch, the appellate court noted Salkil gave consent “well before the warning ticket would have been completed.” Another loss for Salkil.

Next, Salkil challenged the handwriting on the wall, or at least the handwriting on the citation. He claimed writing the “warning by hand improperly extended the stop, because the officer chose a slower method than generating the warning by computer.” That didn’t work, either. The appellate court upheld the trial court ruling: “We are not convinced that the constitutional requirement of reasonableness mandates that police use only computer-generated warning tickets. There is no showing in any event that using a computer would have produced the warning within 37 seconds before Salkil consented to the search.” Moreover, once Salkil consented to the search, he also de facto consented to extending the stop for the time necessary to search.

This blog was featured in our Xiphos newsletter, a monthly legal-focused law enforcement newsletter authored by Ken Wallentine. Subscriptions are free for public safety officers, educators and public attorneys.

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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