Friday, June 23rd, 2006

When Police Stop Vehicle Based on Reasonable Mistake of Fact, They May Briefly Approach Driver to Explain the Error Before Allowing Vehicle to Depart

United States v. Jenkins, Docket No. 05-2679-cr (L) (2d Cir. June 23, 2006) (Meskill, Cabranes, Wesley): This case was litigated by attorneys from this Office, so this Blog will stick mostly to description.

The Court holds that when police stop a vehicle based on a reasonable but mistaken belief that a law has been violated, they may “briefly” approach the driver to explain their error and are not required by the Fourth Amendment to allow the vehicle to depart immediately upon realizing their error. Here, the police stopped the SUV in which the defendants were traveling based on a reasonable belief that the vehicle did not have a license plate, in violation of state law. However, when the officers got out of their car and approached the SUV, they realized that the car did in fact have a temporary license on the back, which was “hard to see and poorly illuminated.” Op. 6. The district court credited the officers’ claim that they did not see this license before stopping the SUV. Therefore, “an objective police officer would have had a reasonable basis to believe there was a traffic violation and to stop the SUV.” Op. 6.

Instead of immediately letting the SUV go after recognizing their error, however, the officers proceeded toward the passenger area of the SUV. Whereupon, unfortunately, they immediately (allegedly) detected the sweet smell of burning marijuana. One thing led to another, and two guns were found in car. Jenkins and Luther were each charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The Circuit upheld the stop (and subsequent search) that led to the discovery of the guns. First, relying on the well established rule that “the validity of a stop is not undermined simply because the officers who made the stop were mistaken about relevant facts,” the Court found that the initial stop of the SUV was justified under Terry in light of the district court’s finding that the officers’ mistake was a reasonable one. Op. 8-9. Second, the Court rejected the defendants’ claim that once the officers realized their mistake, they should have “waved the SUV on and gotten back in their car.” Op. 9 (quoting Jenkins’s brief). The Court held that “when police officers stop a vehicle on a reasonable, albeit erroneous, basis and then realize their mistake, they do not violate the Fourth Amendment merely by approaching the vehicle and apprising the vehicle’s occupants of the situation.” Op. 9-10.

This is so, Judge Cabranes explains, because reasonableness is the “touchstone” of the Fourth Amendment, and because “it is reasonable for officers who have stopped a vehicle on the basis of a reasonable factual mistake to approach the vehicle and apprise the vehicle’s occupants of the situation.” Op. 10. And because the officers here “immediately detected an independent basis for continuing to detain the SUV and its occupants” as they approached the SUV, their subsequent actions were justified by this basis and not by the original, erroneous belief that the SUV did not have a license (which dissipated once the officers realized their error).

Finally, in a footnote, the Court addresses Jenkins’s concern that its holding will lead to abuse by the police and easy circumvention of the Fourth Amendment. Judge Cabranes claims that this will not be so, importantly pointing out that this case “is limited by two factors.” Op. 11 fn.10. First, the district court here credited the officers’ testimony that they mistakenly believed that the SUV did not have a license when they stopped it, and found that their mistake was reasonable. Where the officers’ mistake is unreasonable, this case is not implicated.

Second, the officers here gained an independent basis to detain the SUV “immediately” upon approaching it (i.e., they smelled pot), and thus did “not detain the SUV for longer than necessary to briefly explain to the occupants the reason for the stop.” Id.

This is an important limitation from the defense perspective: Police may not detain a vehicle any “longer than necessary to briefly explain” their error. This is in fact two limitations, a temporal one and a content-based one. Police may only “briefly” detain the vehicle, and when they approach, they may only “explain” their error (and not, e.g., question the occupants). Therefore, when police detain a vehicle for even a second longer than needed solely to explain their mistake in stopping it (and perhaps to apologize), the stop is unjustified and police may not rely on the holding here to justify their subsequent actions.

This case estabishes a narrow rule. Similar circumstances are unlikely to recur.

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