When Does a Stop Stop?

After hearing from a confidential informant that someone was selling heroin at a house in Kentwood, Michigan, two police officers saw Dante Whitley leave the house with a wad of cash. They watched as he briefly went to another house, left, went to a Family Dollar, left, moved a black bag from the passenger seat to the trunk, and went to a liquor store without buying anything.

When Mr. Whitley failed to come to a complete stop before turning from the parking lot to the street, police stopped him for a traffic violation. One officer asked for Mr. Whitley's license, registration, and proof of insurance. When he handed over the documents, the officer saw a scale on his lap. The officer asked him why he had the scale, and Mr. Whitley told him that he smoked marijuana and was on his way to get some.

The officer went back to his car and told the other officer what he had seen. They decided to investigate the scale. Leaving Mr. Whitley's documents behind, they went back to the car and ordered him out. Ultimately, they took him into custody, searched the car, and found marijuana, a gun, and thousands of dollars in cash.

On appeal, Mr. Whitley argued that the officers exceeded the scope of a lawful traffic stop when they returned to the car to investigate the scale. The Sixth Circuit agreed. Relying on Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015), the Court held that the traffic stop "morphed into a drug investigation" at the time when both officers turned their attention to investigating the scale, and neither was performing any task related to investigating the traffic stop (such as checking Mr. Whitley's license).

That may be useful for defendants facing similar circumstances. The Court's opinion makes clear that, after Rodriguez, prior Sixth Circuit decision permitting "de minimis" traffic-stop extensions are "no longer good law." The question instead is whether the officers' actions "prolong[]--i.e., adds time to--the stop." And anything unrelated to the traffic violation, and outside the "down time" waiting for someone else to complete a task related to the traffic violation, may prolong the stop.

But this was no help for Mr. Whitley. The Court concluded that the officers had reasonable suspicion to investigate Mr. Whitley for drug trafficking by the time they abandoned the stop. According to the Court, what they had seen while following him, plus the scale, amounted to reasonable suspicion that Mr. Whitley was engaged in illegal activity. And what Mr. Whitley subsequently said and did gave them probable cause to search the vehicle. Even though the stop stopped, the investigation that continued was lawful.

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