Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

“Unrelated inquiries that prolong or add time to a traffic stop violate the Fourth Amendment absent reasonable suspicion of a separate crime.”

The title is the holding of today’s Second Circuit opinion in United States v. Gomez (Parker, Wesley, Droney) (on appeal from D. Conn.). Specifically, the Circuit held that (1) the Fourth Amendment was violated when officers prolonged a minutes-long traffic stop to investigate matters unrelated to the pretextual basis for the stop, but that (2) suppression was not warranted because the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied. The opinion is available here.

A DEA task force had been investigating Mr. Gomez in connection with a heroin trafficking operation. One of the task force members, a Hartford police officer, testified that he observed the defendant commit three traffic violations. The officer used these violations as grounds to conduct a traffic stop. “From the moment” the officer first approached the car, “his questioning detoured from the mission of the stop (Gomez’s traffic violations) to the DEA’s heroin-trafficking investigation.” Slip op. at 38 (quotation marks and alterations omitted). The officer searched Mr. Gomez’s trunk (ostensibly with his consent) and discovered a large amount of heroin packaged for individual sale. The entire stop, from the moment the officer pulled Mr. Gomez over to the discovery of the heroin, lasted about five minutes. See id. at 14.

The district court denied Mr. Gomez’s motion to suppress, relying on United States v. Harrison, 606 F.3d 42 (2d Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (holding that a 5-6 minute traffic stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment notwithstanding that officers prolonged the stop to investigate other crimes). Two months before the suppression hearing, the Supreme Court held in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), that the Fourth Amendment prohibits even a de minimus extension of a traffic stop to investigate other crimes without independent reasonable suspicion. Neither party in Gomez, however, filed a supplemental brief advising the district court of the decision in Rodriguez.

The Gomez panel held that Rodriguez abrogated the Second Circuit’s prior case law permitting de minimus extensions of traffic stops to investigate, without reasonable suspicion, matters unrelated to the initial stop. In Harrison, the Second Circuit held “unrelated questioning ‘subsumed’ in a five-to-six minute traffic stop does not measurably prolong stop so as to render it unconstitutional.” 606 F.3d at 45. Rodriguez holds, however, that “a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.” 135 S. Ct. at 1612. This decision abrogates Harrison, and makes clear that Mr. Gomez’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. As the panel explained, “unrelated inquiries that prolong or add time to a traffic stop violate the Fourth Amendment absent reasonable suspicion of a separate crime.” Gomez, slip op. at 34-35.

Notwithstanding the Fourth Amendment violation, the panel held that suppression was not warranted. The officer’s conduct was permissible under Harrison, and accordingly the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied. See id. at 45-46. Notably, the panel applied the good-faith exception despite the government’s failure to raise the argument below. The panel recognized that the government forfeited the argument, but nevertheless exercised its discretion to consider it. The reason: Mr. Gomez never argued in the district court that Rodriguez abrogated Harrison. See id. at 51.



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