The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Pettit on Wednesday, May 13, 2015.
Michael Pettit was pulled over in Utah after crossing a highway’s fog line multiple times. During the traffic stop, Pettit seemed excessively nervous, produced a suspended Missouri driver’s license after passing over a California license, and reported unusual travel plans to the trooper. The trooper asked permission to search the trunk of the car, which Pettit granted, and conducted a cursory pat-down search of the luggage, finding nothing. The trooper checked Pettit’s licenses, discovered they were both suspended, and completed the citation paperwork, but instead of returning the citation and license to Pettit, the trooper decided to question him further. He requested consent to search the entire car, which Pettit granted, and soon a drug-sniffing dog arrived and alerted to the presence of drugs. Over 2.5 kilograms of cocaine was found hidden in a spare tire in the trunk. Pettit was indicted on one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was found guilty by a jury. He was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment followed by eight years’ supervised release. He appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress the evidence uncovered after the trooper completed the citation.
Pettit contended the trooper unlawfully extended the traffic stop based on “hunches and unjustified generalizations.” The parties agree that the initial traffic stop was lawful since Pettit crossed the fog line multiple times, and they agree that the initial stop ended when the trooper returned with the completed citation. However, since the trooper did not return Pettit’s license and registration at that time, the encounter did not become consensual. The parties disagree about whether there was reasonable suspicion justifying the continuation of the traffic stop at that time. The Tenth Circuit evaluated each factor supporting reasonable suspicion separately and in aggregate.
Pettit first argued his nervousness could not form the basis for reasonable suspicion. However, the Tenth Circuit examined the record and found that the trooper testified with particularity about the excessive nature of Pettit’s nervousness, including that his lower body would not stop shaking, Pettit said twice within 25 seconds that the officer was making him nervous, and his hand was shaking as he gave the trooper his license. The Tenth Circuit next addressed Pettit’s unusual travel plans. Although travel plans in themselves may not necessarily form the basis for reasonable suspicion, the court found that prior to the citation’s completion, the trooper had discovered Pettit was driving cross-country in a vehicle registered to an absent third party, which is consistent with drug trafficking. Next, Pettit argued that the two suspended licenses could not have given rise to reasonable suspicion, but the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding the licenses alone could have contributed to the formation of an objectively reasonable suspicion of illegal activity, and could also have heightened the officer’s suspicion about Pettit’s unusual travel plans. Finally, Pettit argued that the officer’s initial fruitless search militated against a finding of reasonable suspicion, but the Tenth Circuit again disagreed, finding the search was only cursory and occurred before much of the officer’s questioning.
Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Tenth Circuit found no error in the district court’s denial of Pettit’s motion to suppress, and found the officer had reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop.