Friday, March 4, 2011

The Duration Principle and the "Business Portion" of a Stop

The Fourth District's recent decision in People v. McQuown, No. 4-10-0297, slip op. (4th Dist. February 16, 2011), illustrates the "duration principle" and explains the "business portion" of a stop. In McQuown, the defendant was pulled over for "having an obstructed windshield based on air fresheners hanging on the rearview mirror." Id. at 2-3. The officer issued the defendant a written warning for the obstructed view and continued questioning her. Id. at 2. The officer suspicion was piqued by air fresheners on the mirror, turn signal, and air vents because "drug traffickers often try to overwhelm the vehicle's interior with an artificial air freshener to prevent a drug canine from detaching the odor of contraband." Id. at 4. The officer asked if he could search the car "'quite a few times,'" but the defendant refused. Id. at 3. The officer then told the defendant that "she would have to wait for the canine unit to arrive." McQuown, No. 4-10-0297, slip op. at 2. It was disputed how long it took for the canine unit to arrive, but the court found that it "did not arrive until 37 or 38 minutes." Id. at 8. Once there, the canine alerted on defendant's vehicle, and cocaine was found beneath the driver's seat. Id. at 6. The defendant was changed with three drug offenses. Id. at 1. The defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the seizure of defendant was insufficiently limited in duration. After hearing arguments, the trial court granted defendant's motion to suppress, and the State appealed. Id. at 8.

On appeal, the State argued that "the trial court erred in granting defendant's motion to suppress as Officer Larner had reasonable suspicion to detain her car for a canine sniff." McQuown, No. 4-10-0297, slip op. at 8. This argument, however, did not prevail. Id. Under the Fourth Amendment, "a vehicle stop must be reasonable under the circumstances, and the stop will be deemed reasonable "'where the police have probable cause that a traffic violation has occurred.'" Id. at 10 (citing Ramsey and Whren). Here, the defendant's view was obstructed by an air freshener, which is a violation of the Illinois Vehicle Code. See 625 ILCS 5/12-503(c). Therefore, the stop was reasonable at its inception. However, the stop, even if it is reasonable at its inception, "can be become unlawful 'if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required' to complete the purpose of the stop." Id. at 11 (quoting Caballes). The court then looked to the "duration principle," which concerns the reasonableness of the length of the stop. Id. at 12. There is "no bright-line rule [that] has been adopted to indicate when a stop has been unreasonably prolonged"; rather, the "duration of the stop must be justified by the nature of the offense and the 'ordinary inquiries incident to such a stop.'" McQuown, No. 4-10-0297, slip op. at 12 (citing Caballes, Driggers, and Koutsakis). With this in mind, the court held that the "traffic stop was unduly prolonged in this case." Id. at 12-13. Central to the court's reasoning was that the "'business portion' of the stop took a little over 10 minutes, but Officer Larner did not ask for a canine unit until 13 minutes after the initial purpose of the stop ended." Id. at 13. The court's holding was therefore based on the unreasonable amount of time between when the "business portion" of the stop ended and when the canine units arrived.

Officers will often pull over a defendant for a minor traffic violation (such as having an air freshener on one's mirror) as a pretext for something else. McQuown makes clear that if the officer is going to use a minor traffic stop as a pretext to investigate a more serious offense (such as drug trafficking), that officer must be ready to produce the canine unit in a relatively short period of time following the stop. If a defendant is pulled over for a minor traffic offense, which later results in a drug offense after a drug sniff by a canine unit, the defense lawyer should first identify the "business portion" of the stop. Here, it was a minor traffic violation for having an air freshener on the mirror. Second, the defense lawyer should identify how long the business portion of the stop lasted. For a minor traffic violation like this, it should not take very long for the officer to write the ticket and have it signed. After the nature of the stop has been identified and the duration of the stop relating to its nature has been calculated, the defense lawyer should then look at how much time had lapsed from the end of the "business portion" of the stop (which would usually be determined by the issuance of the citation) to the search of the vehicle. If, as in McQuown, there was an unreasonable amount of time that lapsed between the issuance of the ticket and the search producing the drugs, then the defendant has a good argument that he was seized in violation of the "durational principle." The fruits of the search, as in McQuown, would then be subject to suppression through a pre-trial motion to suppress.

No comments: