Traffic Stop Extended, but Detention Was Lawful

United States v. Whitley, 2022 WL 1561329 (6th Cir. 2022)

A confidential informant told detectives about the sale of heroin at a residence in Kentwood, Michigan. When detectives were watching the home, they saw Dante Whitley leave with a large wad of cash he appeared to be counting. Whitley drove to a house down the street, where he had an interaction lasting less than 30 seconds with another man. Detectives then watched Whitley drive to a Family Dollar store, enter and leave without any apparent purchases. Whitely then took a black bag out of the passenger side of the car, placed it in the trunk and drove to a liquor store. He entered the store empty-handed and came out empty-handed.

The detectives then called for a patrol officer to stop Whitley for failing to come to a standstill before exiting a private driveway onto a public street. During the traffic stop, the patrol officer noticed a digital scale sitting in plain view on Whitley’s lap, as well as marijuana fragments on the dashboard (Michigan law allows possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana). The officer asked Whitley to get out of the car and he initially refused. A detective approached the passenger side to try to persuade Whitley to get out. Whitley complied after his mother arrived approximately 20 minutes after the initial stop. The officer arrested Whitley for “hindering” and “opposing” the officers’ investigation.

After Whitley was arrested, a drug detector dog conducted an exterior sniff. When the dog gave a positive final response to the odor of controlled substances, the officers searched the car. They found a Glock 19 with an extended magazine under the driver’s seat, along with a handgun magazine, digital scale and $7,600 in cash in the center console and on Whitley’s person. They also discovered approximately a pound and a half of marijuana in the black bag in the trunk. Whitley told the officers he knew the gun was under the seat and that his fingerprints would be on the gun and ammunition. He also stated that he takes “donations” in exchange for marijuana.

Whitley was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, possession with the intent to distribute a controlled substance, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking. After the trial court denied Whitley’s motion to suppress, he entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed the denial of his suppression motion.

The court held the officers abandoned the lawful traffic stop after the patrol officer saw the scale, making it the focus of questioning.

Whitley claimed the officers unlawfully extended the proper duration and scope of the traffic stop. In Rodriguez v. United States (575 U.S. 348 (2015)), the Supreme Court held 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.” The court observed that after the officer saw the scale and walked back to confer with the detective, “Whitley’s detention objectively exceeded the relevant scope of the traffic stop because it was now entirely focused on Whitley’s scale.”

Just now, clever officers might be thinking about Supreme Court rulings that officers may order the driver and any passengers to get out of the car until the traffic stop is over (Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408 (1997); Pennsylvania v. Mimms (434 U.S. 106 (1977) (per curiam)). Note: a handful of states have rejected the Mimms/Wilson rule on state constitutional grounds. For example, see Commonwealth v. Gonsalves (711 N.E.2d 108 (Mass. 1999)), rejecting Mimms/Wilson); State v. Caron (586 A.2d 1127 (Vt. 1990)), upholding an exit order on the basis that police had reasonable suspicion the person stopped was armed and dangerous; and State v. Kim (711 P.2d 1291 (Haw. 1985)), rejecting Mimms.

The Whitley court acknowledged that “although in other contexts officers may require an individual to exit a vehicle as a safety precaution, such safety measures taken to facilitate a different investigation are not tasks incident to the initial stop.” The court held that “it is still a detour that requires independent reasonable suspicion” to order Whitley out of the car. Thus, the next question is whether the officers had reasonable suspicion of a crime outside of the traffic violation.

The court held the officers abandoned the lawful traffic stop after the patrol officer saw the scale, making it the focus of questioning. Nonetheless, the officers collectively had reasonable suspicion to continue lawfully detaining Whitley. In addition to the scale and apparent marijuana residue on the dashboard, the officers observed Whitley entering and leaving a suspected drug house, counting a fat wad of cash, making short stops and moving the black bag from the seat to the trunk.

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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