Does a 15-Minute Delay Render a Traffic Violation Stale? | U.S. v. Zuniga

By July 26, 2017Drug Crimes

How Long Can an Officer Wait to Pull a Vehicle Over After Observing a Traffic Violation?

Stale Traffic Violation Zuniga Drug CaseUnited States v. Zuniga (US Court of Appeals, 5th Cir. 2017)

In this case, a San Antonio police detective, who was working with an informant, suspected that Appellant Zuniga was transporting methamphetamine in his vehicle and followed it. The detective witnessed the driver of the vehicle fail to engage the turn-signal as required. He did not pull the vehicle over at that time, but radioed the traffic violation to other officers. Approximately fifteen minutes later, an officer who had received the radio dispatch but had not witnessed the turn-signal violation, stopped the vehicle. During the stop, the officer encountered Appellant, who was riding in the passenger seat, and his girlfriend, who was driving the vehicle. The officer arrested Appellant on outstanding warrants and his girlfriend for driving without a valid driver’s license.

The arresting officer conducted a search of Appellant incident to arrest and found methamphetamine on his person. The officer also searched Zuniga’s car and found a backpack containing methamphetamine, a handgun, and other evidence related to drug trafficking.

As a result, the federal government charged Appellant with several drug-related offenses.

Motion to Suppress for Unreasonable Traffic Delay

Appellant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized during the stop, arguing that the fifteen-minute delay in conducting the stop for the turn-signal violation rendered the information provided by the detective who observed the violation stale.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, holding that the delay in conducting the stop was not enough to render the information stale or the stop unlawful. The court did not state a specific time limitation to which officers must adhere when conducting a traffic stop. Instead, the court stressed that stops following traffic violations must be reasonable in light of the circumstances. In this case, the court found that the fifteen-minute delay was reasonable. As soon as the officer observed the turn-signal violation, he immediately relayed this information to other officers, although none of those officers were in position to stop the vehicle at that time.

Collective Knowledge Doctrine Allows an Officer to Make a Stop for a Violation He Did Not Observe

The trial court further held that the collective knowledge doctrine allowed the arresting officer to lawfully stop the vehicle even though he did not personally observe the traffic violation. The collective knowledge doctrine allows an officer, who does not observe a criminal (or traffic) violation, to conduct a stop when that officer is acting at the request of another officer who actually did observe the violation. Here, the detective who observed the turn-signal violation communicated this information to the traffic officer who ultimately stopped the vehicle; therefore, the detective’s knowledge transferred to the officer who conducted the stop and made the arrest.

The 5th Circuit upheld the search and the conviction, holding that reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle continued to exist despite the 15-minute lapse between the original observation of the traffic offense and the stop. The court explained:

“We make no attempt to articulate a specific time limitation to which officers must adhere in effecting a stop following a traffic violation. Rather, we stress that, consistent with our holdings in similar contexts, stops following transportation violations must be reasonable in light of the circumstances. See, e.g., United States v. Robinson, 741 F.3d 588, 598 (5th Cir. 2014) (emphasizing that “[s]tale information cannot be used to establish probable cause”). To reiterate, we hold only that the elapsed time between an observed violation and any subsequent stop must be reasonable upon consideration of the totality of the circumstances.”

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