Criminal Law – Case Law Update – Traffic Stops

free-vector-scales-of-justice_099380_Scales_of_justiceOn October 14, 2015, the Oregon Court of Appeals issued an opinion regarding a sheriff’s deputy’s extension of a traffic stop to question a defendant, which led to the discovery of heroin.  In State v. Huffman, 274 Or App 308 (2015), the deputy was patrolling a high drug-activity area in a marked patrol car.  The deputy observed Defendant driving in his car, which had a cracked front windshield, no front license plate, and a nonworking tail light.  The deputy initiated a traffic stop and Defendant pulled the car over, immediately exited the car, and began walking toward the patrol car.  The deputy exited the patrol car and instructed Defendant to get back in his car, which he did.

Upon approaching Defendant’s car, the deputy observed that Defendant appeared very nervous; he was visibly shaking and did not make eye contact with the deputy.  The deputy instructed defendant to keep his hands on the steering wheel for safety purposes, but throughout the stop Defendant was fidgety and made furtive movements with his hands towards the front pocket of his sweatshirt.

Upon questioning, Defendant indicated that he did not have insurance and that his driver’s license was suspended.  Using Defendant’s name and date of birth, the Deputy learned that Defendant was on probation for possession of heroin.  The deputy ordered a tow of Defendant’s car per agency policies.  Rather than completing the traffic citation, the deputy then continued to interview Defendant because he “believed there was something else going on with [Defendant] having to grab his sweatshirt.”  The deputy believed he had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  The deputy continued to question Defendant, who eventually admitted he had heroin and a syringe in his sweatshirt pocket.  Defendant consented to a search of his pocket and the deputy seized the heroin and placed Defendant under arrest.  Defendant was charged with possession of heroin and unlawful delivery of heroin.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress the heroin, arguing that the deputy unlawfully extended the traffic stop by questioning him about whether he had anything illegal in the car or on his person.  Defendant argued that those questions exceeded the scope of the traffic stop and amounted to a seizure without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.  The trial court denied the motion to suppress, Defendant was convicted, and Defendant appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the issue before the Court was whether any extension of the traffic stop was justified by reasonable suspicion that Defendant was committing a drug-related crime.  The Court of Appeals held that reasonable suspicion did exist, based on the following observations by the deputy:

  1. Defendant was driving in a high drug-activity area;
  2. Defendant left the car immediately after it was stopped, which the deputy testified was consistent with someone trying to hide something or flee;
  3. Defendant was nervous, visibly shaking, and would not maintain eye contact with the deputy;
  4. Defendant was on probation for possession of heroin; and
  5. Defendant would not keep his hands on the steering wheel when requested by the deputy and repeatedly made furtive movements towards his sweatshirt pocket.

The trial court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress was affirmed.

For a more in-depth analysis of the law surrounding traffic stops that turn into criminal investigations, check out this summary of Traffic Stop Law.