Fourth Circuit: Traffic Stop Violated Defendant’s Fourth Amendment Rights, Conviction Reversed

U.S. v. Brian Bowman (No. 16-4848)

Brian Bowman appeals the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence recovered from a dog sniff conducted after an already-completed traffic stop. The Fourth Circuit concludes that the police officer had neither Bowman’s consent to extend the traffic stop nor a reasonable, articulable suspicion of ongoing criminal activity to justify doing so. Accordingly, the prolonged traffic stop abridged Bowman’s right under the Fourth Amendment to be free of unreasonable seizures.

In the early morning hours of June 20, 2015, Waycaster was patrolling U.S. Route 25 in Henderson County, North Carolina. He received a tip from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) that two individuals suspected of transporting methamphetamine from Atlanta to the Asheville and Hendersonville areas were possibly driving “a red, older model Lexus” in the area. Additionally, the DEA provided the license plate number for the vehicle. At about 3:40 a.m., Waycaster spotted a red 1998 Lexus traveling north on U.S. Route 25 and followed in his patrol vehicle. Rather than stop the vehicle based on the information provided by the DEA, Waycaster was “looking for [his]own infractions . . . for [his own] reason to stop the vehicle.” According to Waycaster, the red Lexus weaved over the fog line and accelerated up to a steady 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, leading Waycaster to believe that the driver might be operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Waycaster stopped the Lexus. Bowman was the driver, and Homero Alvarez occupied the front passenger’s seat. They both appeared nervous.

Waycaster instructed Bowman to sit in Waycaster’s patrol vehicle while he ran a check on Bowman’s driver’s license and vehicle registration. Bowman complied and sat in the patrol car’s front passenger’s seat. After speaking with Bowman, Waycaster did not believe he was driving under the influence and issued him a warning for speeding and unsafe movement of the vehicle. Waycaster then completed the traffic stop by returning Bowman’s driver’s license and registration and shaking his hand. As Bowman began to exit the patrol vehicle, Waycaster asked if he could speak with Bowman further. Bowman consented and remained in the patrol car. Waycaster asked Bowman additional questions about where Bowman was going that evening.

Waycaster then stated to Bowman, who was still seated in the patrol car, that he “was going to go ask [Alvarez] questions if you don’t mind, okay?” Bowman responded, “okay,” and remained in the vehicle. Then, as Waycaster was getting out of the patrol car, he told Bowman, “just hang tight right there, okay,” to which Bowman said, “oh, okay.” Waycaster testified that at this point, Bowman was “not free to get out of that police car to leave” because Waycaster had developed from the traffic stop alone a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to detain Bowman further. Waycaster then walked to the passenger side of the Lexus and began posing questions to Alvarez about where they had been that morning. Alvarez gave an inconsistent story.

Waycaster asked for permission to search the Lexus, but Bowman refused. Once again, Waycaster told Bowman to “hang tight, okay” and then removed Alvarez from the Lexus, frisked him for weapons, and placed him in the patrol car with Bowman. A K-9 officer was summoned who then conducted a pass around the outside of the Lexus—and then on the interior of the vehicle—and received an alert from the dog for the presence of illegal narcotics. Subsequently, Waycaster and the K-9 handler conducted a search of the interior of the Lexus and found a quantity of methamphetamine, digital scales and containers of ammunition.

After Bowman moved to suppress the drugs, the magistrate judge concluded that “[u]nder the totality of the circumstances, a reasonable person in Defendant Bowman’s position would not have felt free to leave and terminate the traffic stop after being directed by Trooper Waycaster to remain in the patrol car while the officer questioned the passenger.” Nonetheless, the magistrate judge concluded that the prolonged detention was permissible because “Waycaster had a justified, reasonable suspicion that Defendant Bowman was engaged in criminal activity.”

On appeal from the denial of his motion to suppress, it is undisputed that the initial traffic stop was complete when Waycaster issued Bowman a warning citation, returned his license and registration, and shook his hand. It is likewise undisputed that Bowman subsequently agreed Waycaster could ask him additional questions, which Waycaster did for approximately 40 seconds. Thus, Bowman concedes that this 40-second colloquy in the patrol car was a consensual encounter. However, he maintains that this brief consensual encounter became a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes at the moment that Waycaster directed him to “hang tight” in the patrol car while Waycaster questioned Alvarez. The Fourth Circuit agrees, holding that “when Waycaster directed Bowman to remain in the patrol car after asking the additional questions, the encounter was no longer a consensual one but instead constituted a nonconsensual seizure.”

The Court goes on to consider whether Waycaster had reasonable suspicion to detain Bowman at the time he ordered Bowman to remain in the patrol car. The Court sequentially rejects all of the Government’s alleged bases for reasonable suspicion:

  • (1) nervousness (“a driver’s nervousness is not a particularly good indicator of criminal activity, because most everyone is nervous when interacting with the police”);
  • (2) the presence of clothing, food, and energy drinks in the car (“entirely consistent with innocent travel such that, in the absence of contradictory information, it cannot reasonably be said to give rise to suspicion of criminal activity”);
  • (3) Bowman’s uncertainty about the address of his passenger’s girlfriend (“Bowman told Waycaster several times that the address had been entered into his car’s on-board GPS as he was unfamiliar with the area.”)
  • (4) Bowman’s recent purchase of vehicles (“Without more, this factor is totally innocuous, and we accord very little weight to it.”)
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