The Extended Traffic Stop

Publication year2015
The extended Traffic stop
No. Vol. 27 Issue 1 Pg. 19
South Carolina BAR Journal
July, 2015

John O. Radeck Jr.

Nearly everyone has experienced a traffic stop. The heart rate of the most innocent traveler increases upon seeing blue lights in the rearview mirror. You pull over and wait for the officer to inevitably approach and hope the stop does not last too long. In my prior article The Traffic Stop: A Chronology of Fourth Amendment Issues,[1]outlined a variety of Fourth Amendment issues that can arise during a traffic stop. This article will focus on an officer's prolongation of an otherwise lawful traffic stop for investigative reasons.

Prolongation of the traffic stop

There are two types of prolongation cases: (1) where the prolongation occurs after the traffic stop is complete (potentially creating a second unlawful seizure at the end of the initial lawful seizure) and (2) where there is prolongation by the officer before the stop is complete, because the officer pursues a parallel investigation, one related to the justification for the traffic stop, the other unrelated.[2]Many cases turn on whether an officer's off-topic questions or actions measurably extend or prolong the traffic stop. If so, the question becomes whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to do so.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently confirmed that a vehicle stop for a traffic violation can only last as long as reasonably required to issue a ticket and complete the stop's mission.[3]The "mission" includes "checking the driver's license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile's registration and proof of insurance."[4]"If an officer can complete [these] traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of 'time reasonably required to complete [the stop's] mission.'"[5]The Court has also permitted "certain" unrelated investigations that did not lengthen the traffic stop, such as unrelated questioning[6]and dog sniffs.[7]However, the stop becomes unlawful if the unrelated investigation prolongs (adds time) to the stop.[8]

The Fourth Circuit traditionally considered certain traffic stop delays as "de minimis" and outside the purview of the Fourth Amendment.[9]More recent Fourth Circuit cases determine the lawfulness of traffic stop delays by analyzing the diligence of the officer's actions in investigation the traffic violation.[10]

The U.S. Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. United States[11]acknowledged that its prior precedent allowed for de minimis intrusions.[12] But the Court clarified that the intrusions must relate to the legitimate interest in the officer's safety in carrying out the mission of the traffic stop.[13] An investigation into other crimes "detours from that mission."[14]

Prolongation after the stop is complete


The S.C. Supreme Court's pivotal decision concerning an officer's continued detention of a vehicle's occupant after the completion of the traffic stop is State v. Tindall.[15] Tindall makes clear that once the initial traffic stop is complete, "[a]ny further detention for questioning is beyond the scope of the stop and therefore illegal unless the officer has reasonable suspicion of a serious crime."[16]

In Tindall, an officer performed a routine traffic stop for speeding and advised the driver he would receive a warning ticket. However, instead of issuing the ticket, he questioned the driver for an additional six to seven minutes about the purpose of his trip, his travel plans and whether he was ever charged with any drug crimes.[17] The officer eventually obtained consent to search the vehicle, drugs were found and the driver was arrested.[18] The Court found that the continued detention exceeded the scope of the traffic stop and constituted an additional seizure.[19] The Court further held that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify the second detention.


The S.C. Supreme Court recently revisited the scenario presented in Tindall in the case of State v. Heujins.[20] In Heujins, the officer performed a routine traffic stop on a vehicle for making an improper turn.[21] The officer approached the vehicle and requested the defendant's driver's license, proof of insurance and vehicle registration.[22] The officer immediately called for back-up because the defendant was nervous.[23] Because the driver did not have his registration, the officer returned to his patrol car and confirmed in the computer database that the vehicle was registered to the defendant.[24] The K-9 unit arrived as the officer was in the process of completing the warning citation.[25] The officer completed the warning citation and returned to the defendant's vehicle.[26] Instead of presenting the warning citation, and because the defendant was acting nervous, the - officer ordered the driver out of the vehicle and conducted a pat-down search.[27] Following the pat down, the officer further questioned the driver as to whether he had any guns, drugs or explosives.[28] The driver denied having drugs and refused consent to search.[29] The second officer on the scene performed a dog-sniff on the vehicle that led to the discovery of drugs and the driver was arrested.[30]

The Court held that, per Tindall, the officer's continued detention of the defendant for questioning exceeded the scope of the initial traffic stop because the purpose of the initial stop ended when the officer completed the warning citation and the only thing left to do was issue the citation.[31] The Court further held, citing to State v. Provet, that the officer did not have "reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to extend the duration of the traffic stop and conduct the search."[32]

Prolongation before the stop is complete


The next major post-Tindall traffic stop decision from the S.C. Supreme Court occurred in State v. Prouet.[33] But unlike Tindall and Heujins, here the analysis is whether prolongation occurred prior to the completion of the traffic stop.[34] Provet focused on the duration of the traffic stop and recognized that police questioning may be unrelated to the purpose of the traffic stop so long as the stop is not measurably extended.[35] The Court instructed that "the proper inquiry is not whether an officer 'unreasonably' extended the duration of the traffic stop with his off-topic questions but whether he 'measurably' extended it. This is a temporal inquiry, not a reasonableness inquiry."[36]

In Provet, the officer commenced a traffic stop on the defendant's vehicle for a burnt out tail-light and for following too closely[37] The officer obtained the defendant's driver's license and registration and noticed the registration was in the name of a third party[38] The officer ordered the driver out of the vehicle and performed a pat down search for weapons.[39] As the officer prepared the warning citation, he asked the driver a series of questions regarding his travel plans and became suspicious.[40] The officer then called both a K-9 unit for backup and dispatch to check the status of the defendant's driver's license and registration.[41] The K-9 unit arrived before the completion of the registration check.[42] The defendant's license and registration check yielded no results and he received a warning citation.[43] After the warning citation was issued, the officer obtained consent to search the vehicle and the officer handling the drug detection dog began his search.[44] The defendant fled and was eventually arrested for drugs found in the vehicle.[45]

The Court of Appeals held that the officer did not unreasonably extend the traffic stop, because "the entire traffic stop amounted to less than eleven minutes."[46] The Court agreed with the trial court and Court of Appeals' determination "that ten minutes was a reasonable length of time for the initial traffic stop and that [the] [officer's off-topic questions did not measurably extend the duration of the stop."[47]


The most recent traffic stop decision from the S.C. Supreme Court is State v. Morris, where the Court utilized Provet in finding that a 13-minute traffic stop was not unduly prolonged, especially when the actions of the occupants them-selves contributed to the duration of the stop.[48]

In Morris, the officer performed a traffic stop on the defendant's vehicle for following too closely[49] The officer obtained the driver's license and registration and ordered the driver to exit the vehicle and accompany him to his patrol car.[50] The officer commenced running the registration and asked the driver several questions regarding his travel plans.[51] The officer then returned to the vehicle and questioned the passenger about the travel plans.[52] The officer received inconsistent stories and called for a K-9 unit.[53] While waiting, the officer conducted a consent search of the driver that yielded no drugs.[54] After multiple requests by the driver, the officer escorted the driver to the rest-room.[55] The passenger also requested to use the restroom.[56] As the passenger exited the vehicle, the officer informed the passenger that he smelled marijuana.[57]The passenger consented to a search from the second officer on the scene and no drugs were found.[58] Soon thereafter the occupants refused the officer's request to search the vehicle.[59] The drug dog arrived and failed to alert during its walk around the vehicle.[60] The officers nevertheless proceeded to search the interior and trunk of the vehicle. The occupants were arrested after drugs were located in the trunk and under the spare tire.[61]

The Court held that the 13-minute stop was not "unduly prolonged or burdensome, especially where a reasonable suspicion to extend the stop existed at the outset," noting that recently in Provet it found a 10-minute stop to be a reasonable amount of time for an initial traffic stop.[62] The Court also considered...

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