June 27, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Drug Dog Search Illegal Where Warning Given for Speeding and Consent to Search Refused

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Lopez on February 27, 2017.

On June 21, 2013, Angela Lopez was driving eastbound in Kansas. Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Robert Krause pulled the vehicle over for going 79 milers per hour in a 65-mile-per-hour zone. Adrienne Lopez was in the passenger seat. Throughout the encounter, Adrienne, rather than Angela, did almost all of the talking, which Krause said could be a sign of nervousness. Krause asked Angela for her license, insurance, and car-rental paperwork. Krause then looked in the back seat of the car. Upon doing so, Adrienne said, “Don’t look back there, it’s a mess.” Krause asked about their travel plans. Adrienne told him that they were going from California and headed to “Kansas City or Nebraska” to rescue her sister “because she was getting beat up by her boyfriend.” Angela provided Krause a receipt from the California Department of Motor Vehicles that was issued to her when she reported losing her license, rather than her actual license.

Krause asked both occupants if they had drugs in the car, to which both replied no. Krause relayed Angela’s information to the dispatcher and learned that she had a valid driver’s license and no criminal history. Krause warned Angela for speeding and turned to walk away. He immediately turned back and asked Angela if she would answer a few more questions, which she consented to. Krause asked where they were heading. Adrienne answered that she did not know the exact city because her phone did not have reception.

Krause then asked the Defendants if he could search the vehicle. They refused. Krause then detained them until a drug dog could be brought to the vehicle, which took about twenty minutes. The dog alerted Krause to the front seat where Adrienne’s purse was located. Adrienne admitted having some marijuana in her purse, which Krause found and then searched the rest of the car. He found four packages in a cooler in the back seat of methamphetamine. The packages totaled 1,766 grams of methamphetamine.

The United States District Court for the District of Kansas denied Defendants’ motions to suppress the evidence of methamphetamine found in the car. The two were convicted of possessing more than 500 grams of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, and of conspiracy to do the same. The Defendants appealed.

The Tenth Circuit first established that a traffic stop must be justified at its inception and that the officer’s actions during the stop must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that initially justified it. A stop may be extended beyond that scope if the person stopped consents to the extension or if the police have a reasonable suspicion that other illegal activity has occurred or is occurring.

Here, the Defendants did not consent to the extension of the stop by Krause beyond its initial purpose. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit addressed whether Krause had reasonable suspicion that the Defendants were engaged in criminal activity, which the government bears the burden of proving.

The government put forth three suspicious factors that justified detention: (1) Adrienne was nervous; (2) Adrienne asked Krause not to look at the backseat because it was messy, even though it was not; and (3) Defendant’s travel plans were implausible.

The Tenth Circuit first addressed Adrienne’s nervousness. It stated that it consistently assigns that factor limited significance because innocent people can be nervous in wide varieties. In order to contribute to reasonable suspicion, the Tenth Circuit held that there must be extreme nervousness, which the district court did not find, and Krause did not so testify.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that Adrienne’s comments about the backseat gave little support for reasonable suspicion. It stated that in hindsight, the comments seemed revealing. But at the time, there was nothing incriminating in view on the backseat. Further, nothing stopped Krause from taking a closer look through the back window.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed the government’s argument that the Defendants’ travel plans were implausible. The government pointed to the fact that the two only rented the car for two days, which was not enough time to drive to their destination and return. The Tenth Circuit held that the travel plans might have been overly ambitions, but they could reasonably have been done. First, the Tenth Circuit pointed to the fact that they were driving through the night, which was why two drivers were necessary. Next, because they were rescuing Adrienne’s sister from an abusive boyfriend, it was reasonable to assume they would not stay at the destination very long. Finally, because it was understandable that the sister needed to move to protect herself from her abusive boyfriend, it was reasonable that the Defendants did not need a more precise location until they were closer to the destination. Further, the Tenth Circuit stated that it has generally been reluctant to give weight to the reasonable-suspicion analysis to unusual travel purposes, except in extreme cases.

The Tenth Circuit held that the circumstances did not suffice to justify the continued detention of the Defendants. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that the evidence seized from the car must be suppressed.

The Tenth Circuit then quickly dispatched with the governments two remaining arguments. First, the government argued that the evidence was admissible against Adrienne because the discovery of the drugs was not the fruit of her unlawful detention. The Tenth Circuit held that because Krause seized the marijuana from Adrienne’s purse, and the detention of Adrienne’s personal property led to the search of the car and discovery of the methamphetamine, Adrienne did have standing to challenge the admission into evidence of the drugs.

Second, the government argued that the detention was lawful as to Angela because there was probable cause to arrest her for driving while not in possession of her driver’s license. The Tenth Circuit held that there was no probable cause to arrest Angela. First, the documents Angela gave Krause would likely be a “driver’s license” under the Kansas statute. Further, even if not a “driver’s license,” Krause learned from the dispatcher that she had a valid driver’s license in California, and therefore had enough information to know that she could not be convicted for the offense under the statute. The Tenth Circuit held that an officer does not have probable cause to arrest a person for a crime he know she could not be convicted of.

In sum, the Tenth Circuit reversed the Defendants’ convictions and remanded to the district court for proceedings consistent with its opinion.

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