A Traffic Stop for a Minor Traffic Infraction Leads to Search, Seizure, and Arrest: Exactly When Should Traffic Stops End?
If you’ve been a licensed (or even unlicensed) driver in Texas for long enough, you’ve experienced a traffic stop. Whether it be for speeding or something worse, a traffic stop is not generally a pleasant experience. But in some traffic stops across the state (hopefully not yours), the police conduct a search of the vehicle, then a search of the driver or passengers, and, finally make an arrest of some sort. How does something like a broken tail light or speeding lead to search, seizure, and arrest? When traffic stops for minor infractions potentially lead to serious criminal charges, it’s important to know how Texas courts define the moment when a traffic stop ends.
Broken Tail Light Leads to a Traffic Stop
Around 1:00 am, Jennifer Dowling drove Christopher King’s car home from a night on the town. Blue Mound Police noticed that the car had a broken right tail light and conducted a traffic stop pursuant to the infraction. Police ran the standard background check on Dowling, the driver, and King, the passenger, only to discover that neither had a valid driver’s license. As a result, Dowling was arrested for driving without a license. Police did not permit King to drive the car away and informed him that they would impound the car because leaving the car behind posed a safety hazard for other motorists.
Consent to Search Obtained, Traffic Stop Continued
To begin the impounding process, police asked King to exit the vehicle. When King got out of the car, police asked if they could perform a pat-down. Nervously, King complied with the request. When King stood up, a white cylinder-shaped container fell out of King’s pants onto the ground, and he admitted that the container held meth. King was arrested and charged with possession of a controlled substance.
Trial Court Holds That King Consented to the Pat-Down
Before trial, King filed a motion to suppress the physical evidence—the meth and the container—because the evidence was seized without a warrant. At the suppression hearing, the State prevailed, arguing that King consented to the pat-down, and the interaction was a consensual encounter. King lost his suppression motion, and plead guilty to the charges. The trial court sentenced King to twelve years confinement. Arguing that the traffic stop ended when Dowling was arrested and that the traffic stop was improperly extended to him, King appealed to the Second Court of Appeals.
Second Court of Appeals Discusses Traffic Stops
The Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth relied upon existing case law from the Supreme Court to evaluate the merits of King’s appeal. “A lawful roadside stop begins when a vehicle is pulled over for investigation of a traffic violation.” Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 333; 129 S. Ct. 781,, 788 (2009). “A traffic stop ends when police have no further need to control the scene.” Id., 129 S. Ct. at 783. According to the Second Court of Appeals, the police needed to control the scene even after Dowling was arrested. In asking King for a pat-down, they were taking reasonable steps to secure the area by ensuring that King was not a safety threat while waiting for a tow truck. Further, “the impoundment of the vehicle was a task tied to the traffic infraction, and King ma[de] no argument that the task [of impoundment] should have reasonably been completed at the time the police asked for consent to the pat-down.” The Second Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that the traffic stop was not improperly extended.
What does all of this mean for motorists? So long as the police are reasonably securing the scene by taking steps in an effort to maintain safety, the police may continue the traffic stop until the conclusion of such safety measures, including but not limited to, pat-downs, security sweeps, background checks, and impoundments. In this case, King would have had a more colorable argument if he had been a licensed driver and the police extended the stop rather than letting him drive the vehicle away from the scene.