July 18, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Traffic Stop and Search Did Not Violate Fourth Amendment

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Harmon on Tuesday, January 21, 2014.

Mr. Harmon, the appellant in this case, was driving a car across New Mexico with drugs in his spare tire. After weaving within his lane and crossing the fog line, Officer Lucero decided to stop the car on suspicion of violating a New Mexico statute that requires a driver to stay in his or her lane. During the traffic stop, the officer discovered the drugs, and Mr. Harmon was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine and possession with intent to distribute 50 kilograms of marijuana.

He moved to suppress the evidence before trial, but the district court denied that motion. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit was asked to decide, among other things, whether the stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

On appeal, Mr. Harmon made the following arguments: (1) that Officer Lucero lacked sufficient reasonable suspicion to make the initial traffic stop; (2) that the scope of the search exceeded the initial justification for the stop; (3) that his motion to reopen ought to have been granted in light of Officer Lucero’s behavior in another case the Officer was involved in; and (4) that he received ineffective assistance of counsel in entering into his plea agreement.

First, the Tenth Circuit agreed with the district court that Officer Lucero had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle on suspicion of impairment under New Mexico law. A traffic stop is a seizure for purposes of Fourth Amendment analysis, and the “reasonable suspicion” standard from Terry v. Ohio applies. An investigatory stop is justified at its inception if the specific and articulable facts and rational inferences drawn from those facts give rise to a reasonable suspicion a person has or is committing a crime. The court looks to the totality of circumstances to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists.

The Tenth Circuit held that Officer Lucero had reasonable suspicion that Mr. Harmon violated the New Mexico statute of driving while impaired when the tires of Mr. Harmon’s car crossed the white fog line that separates the right lane of the interstate from the shoulder. The statute states in part that “a vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.” Under these facts, Officer Lucero could have had a reasonable suspicion of impairment.

Mr. Harmon also argued that Officer Lucero’s investigatory stop exceeded the scope of the initial justification, thereby violating the Fourth Amendment and entitling him to suppression of the drugs discovered in the car. Not only must the initial stop be justified, but the scope of the resulting detention must remain reasonably related to the initial justification. Once the officer has satisfied his initial reasonable suspicions, unless the officer obtains a new and independent basis for suspecting the detained individual of criminal activity, his investigation must end. However, counsel conceded during oral argument that the search was consensual.

Mr. Harmon also contended that the district court improperly denied his motion to reopen and reconsider the previous denial of the motion to suppress. In that motion, he also claimed that evidence regarding Officer Lucero’s omission in a report in an unrelated case constituted impeachment material that should have been disclosed prior to the suppression hearing. The Tenth Circuit found this argument unavailing for several reasons. First, Officer Lucero did not violate the Fourth Amendment in the other case. Second, there was no obligation that the report be exhaustive. Third, law enforcement may at times have legitimate reasons to keep certain information confidential. The court concluded that the district court did not abuse its discretion in deciding that the evidence from the other case did not possess impeachment value and was unlikely to change the outcome of the suppression hearing.

The court rejected Mr. Harmon’s argument that he received ineffective assistance of counsel.

AFFIRMED.

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