Traffic Stop by the Numbers Adds Up to Admissible Evidence

United States v. Mathes, 2023 WL 411384 (8th Cir. 2023)

Jessica Mathes was a passenger in a truck stopped for a traffic violation. Clinton Humes, the driver, was shaking and acting nervously. Mathes was in the front passenger seat and Juston Ashburn was sitting in the back seat. The officer asked their names and contacted a dispatcher to obtain background information on both the occupants and the truck. When the officer asked whether any of them had ever been arrested, Ashburn and Mathes both responded that they had been arrested for drugs.

The officer asked Humes to step to the back of the truck and Humes gave consent to search the truck. The officer searched Ashburn, discovering methamphetamine in his underwear. When the officer searched the truck, he found a digital scale, covered in a white powder residue that appeared to be methamphetamine, inside the console between the front seats. The officer arrested both Mathes and Humes for possession of drug paraphernalia. Subsequent to the arrest, a female officer searched Mathes and found bags of methamphetamine in her bra and pants.

At the police station, Mathes admitted to owning the scale found in the console and the methamphetamine found on her person. She also confessed to selling methamphetamine. Mathes later asked the court to suppress the evidence seized and her statements.

Mathes argued the officer unlawfully prolonged the traffic stop. A stop may “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the initial purpose of the stop. Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed” (Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015)). The detention and investigation must be reasonably related to the initial reason for the stop, unless other factors support additional reasonable suspicion. An officer’s mission during a traffic stop is not limited to determining whether to issue a ticket. In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court declared the mission of a traffic stop “includes ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop,” recognizing that “traffic stops are especially fraught with danger to police officers.” As part of a routine traffic stop, an officer may request a driver’s license and vehicle registration, conduct a computer check for warrants, and issue a citation.

The court noted probable cause “is not a high bar: It requires only the kind of fair probability on which reasonable and prudent people, not legal technicians, act.”

The court held the officer’s questions did not impermissibly extend the length of the stop. He asked about arrest histories while waiting for routine information from the dispatcher, so the questions did not extend the duration of the detention. The officer’s request for permission to search required only a couple of seconds while Humes was standing at the rear of the vehicle. That inquiry did not extend the stop beyond the time that would have been required for Humes to return to the driver’s seat.

Mathes also argued there was not probable cause to arrest her for the paraphernalia (scales) between her seat and Humes’ seat, asserting the officer could not have probable cause to believe it was drug paraphernalia without a field test confirming it was methamphetamine. The court made quick work of that argument. Not only did the officer have training and experience as a narcotics officer in identifying methamphetamine, but when the officer found the scale, Mathes had just told him she’d been arrested for drugs.

The court also held the officer had probable cause to believe Mathes constructively possessed the scales. The term “constructive possession” reflects the commonsense notion that an individual may possess a controlled substance even though the substance is not on his person at the time of arrest. One common probable cause issue in drug arrests arises when drugs are found in a room or vehicle occupied by multiple persons. Rarely does the question, “Who owns the dope?” result in a complete and honest answer.

The officer knew Mathes had just driven the car to pick up Humes before she became the front seat passenger. The console was immediately adjacent to Mathes and she controlled the truck as the driver for one segment of the trip. She had admitted a prior arrest for drugs and the back seat passenger, with whom Mathes had been alone in the car before meeting Humes, was holding methamphetamine. It was reasonable for the officer to conclude Mathes possessed the scales.

Quoting the black letter rule from the Supreme Court, the court noted probable cause “is not a high bar: It requires only the kind of fair probability on which reasonable and prudent people, not legal technicians, act” (Kaley v. United States, 571 U.S. 320 (2014)). A traffic stop by the numbers and good reporting and testimony spelled a conviction for Mathes.

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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