Friday, September 6th, 2019

Second Circuit upholds prolonged traffic stop based on suspicion that car was stolen, despite database check confirming that it was not stolen.

In United States v. Wallace, No. 17-0472 (2d. Cir. Sept. 3, 2019), the Second Circuit, in an opinion by District Judge Abrams (joined by Judge Winter), upheld the district court’s denial of the defendant’s motion seeking suppression of a firearm recovered following a prolonged traffic stop. Judge Pooler dissented.

After being pulled over for a defective brake light at 7:20 pm, defendant Wallace produced a valid driver’s license but not his registration card. The officers noticed that the registration and inspection stickers on the car were damaged and faded and that there were marks on the car’s door suggesting that it had been pried open. Wallace explained that the stickers had been damaged by a defogging spray and that the door damage was from a prior occasion when he had locked himself out of the car. Although the Vehicle Identification Number (“VIN”) on the registration sticker was only partially visible, the VIN on the dashboard was fully visible and matched the legible digits on the registration sticker. Moreover, there was no indication that the dashboard VIN had been tampered with in any way.

Nonetheless, the officers remained suspicious that the vehicle was stolen based on their belief that there possibly had been a “VIN swap,” whereby a VIN plate from one vehicle is removed and placed onto a stolen vehicle. The officers decided to check the non-public VIN printed on the inside of the doorjamb to see if it matched the VIN on the dash. After obtaining Wallace’s consent to open the car door, the police observed that the required sticker was missing. After questioning Wallace, they arrested him at 7:29 pm for violating N.Y. Penal Law § 170.70, which prohibits anyone from “knowingly” possessing a car with a removed VIN. A later search of the car at the precinct resulted in the recovery of a gun from under the hood of the car.

There was one critical fact calling into question the justification for the police actions that led to Wallace’s arrest: at 7:22 pm, seven minutes before the police arrested him, the police had searched Wallace’s name through law enforcement databases using a portable device called a Rugby, which immediately confirmed the validity of the VIN on the dashboard, Wallace’s driver’s license, the license plate, and the registration of the car to Wallace. Thus, several minutes before they arrested Wallace for the missing doorjamb VIN sticker, the police had evidence that the vehicle was not stolen.

In rejecting Wallace’s argument that the traffic stop was unconstitutionally prolonged under the standards articulated by the Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), District Judge Abrams found that reasonable suspicion justified extending the traffic stop beyond the time required to complete the stop’s mission, despite the Rugby report’s confirmation that the vehicle was not stolen. Specifically, the majority held that the officer’s testimony about his doubt of the Rugby report and how it hypothetically could fail to identify a stolen vehicle if there had been a VIN swap, in combination with the other circumstances of the stop, provided reasonable suspicion to extend the stop.

In a dissent, Judge Pooler found extension of the stop was not justified once the Rugby report confirmed that the vehicle belonged to Wallace. Because there was no evidence of tampering with the dashboard VIN plate or a VIN swap, and where the dashboard VIN number checked out against a comprehensive records check, Judge Pooler explained, the officers lacked any specific and articulable basis for doubting the Rugby report and continuing the detention and investigation of Wallace after 7:22 pm.

The dissent further lamented that a defective brake light led to a 15-year sentence for Wallace and described this case as one embodying “how the authority to stop cars for minor traffic offenses . . . has burgeoned into a full-fledged crime-control strategy involving multiple patrol officers equipped with squad cars, guns, and lights.” (Quoting Sarah A. Seo, Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom 273 (2019)).

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