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United States v. Leon.

No. 22-1070. 9/11/2023. D.Colo. Judge Seymour. Traffic Stop—Reasonable Suspicion—Rodriguez Moment—Drug Trafficking.

September 11, 2023

Colorado State Patrol Trooper Gosnell observed Leon illegally driving his truck in a passing lane on I-70. The truck had Minnesota tags. Trooper Gosnell initiated a traffic stop and observed disorganized boxes and clothing in the backseat, food wrappers and drink containers and religious pamphlets in the front seat, and a single key in the ignition. Trooper Gosnell asked Leon for his license and registration. Leon produced an Arizona driver’s license. He then opened a backpack and removed a manila envelope, fumbled documents from the envelope, and asked Trooper Gosnell if he wanted to look at it. Trooper Gosnell found an insurance card, an expired registration with another person’s name on it, and the vehicle title, which showed that Leon had recently purchased the vehicle. Trooper Gosnell asked Leon a number of questions about his travel plans and his ties to Minnesota. Trooper Gosnell believed Leon was being too cooperative and nervous and found Leon’s answers to his questions to be indirect. These circumstances led Trooper Gosnell to suspect that Leon was involved in drug trafficking, and the officer asked for the mileage on the truck. After running some checks, Trooper Gosnell asked for Leon’s consent to search the vehicle. Leon refused consent, but Trooper Gosnell conducted a dog sniff of the vehicle’s exterior. The K-9 alerted to the odor of narcotics, and Trooper Gosnell and another officer searched the vehicle. The officers found 76 pounds of methamphetamine and placed Leon under arrest. Leon was indicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He moved to suppress evidence discovered during the search of his vehicle. The court denied the motion and a motion for reconsideration. Leon pleaded guilty pursuant to a conditional plea agreement, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion.

On appeal, Leon argued that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress because Trooper Gosnell lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop and investigate the suspected drug trafficking. A routine traffic stop is a seizure and is treated as an investigative detention under the Fourth Amendment. Under Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015), authority for such seizure ends when the police tasks tied to the traffic infraction are, or reasonably should have been, completed. Consequently, an officer may not prolong a traffic stop to conduct an unrelated investigation without reasonable suspicion that the detainee is engaged in criminal activity. The moment at which this reasonable suspicion becomes necessary is known as the “Rodriguez moment.” The parties agreed that when Trooper Gosnell asked Leon for the car’s mileage, a Rodriguez moment occurred. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit analyzed the totality of the circumstances to determine whether Trooper Gosnell reasonably suspected that Leon was engaged in criminal activity when he asked for the mileage. Here, factors that the district court cited in concluding that Trooper Gosnell had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop beyond its traffic-based purpose included the trip’s potential origin from Arizona, a known drug hub, and traveling from there to Minnesota; vague travel plans and reasons for being in Denver; attempting to control the conversation; inconsistent statements about where he was currently living; the Arizona driver’s license; the Minnesota registered vehicle; the condition of the interior of the vehicle; and Leon’s nervousness. The Tenth Circuit determined that the characterization of Arizona and Minnesota as drug hubs or destinations were not germane to the reasonable suspicion analysis, because the probativeness of a defendant’s route is minimal. Second, the district court unduly emphasized Leon’s travel plans of driving from Phoenix to Denver to pick up books and perhaps stay for an event because Leon’s plans were at most unusual, not logistically unrealistic. Third, while Leon may have offered too much detail or engaged in unnecessary conversation, this was understandable, as Trooper Gosnell inquired into Leon’s ties to Minnesota and his authority to operate the vehicle. Fourth, at the time of the Rodriguez moment, Leon had not made any inconsistent statement about where he was living. Further, the presence of boxes or clothing, whether neatly arranged or disorganized, does not raise an inference of reasonable suspicion. And Leon did not exhibit extreme nervousness. The Tenth Circuit concluded that while the factors the district court cited are not inconsistent with drug trafficking, they do not operate together to eliminate a sufficient portion of innocent travel and are not meaningfully indicative of drug trafficking. Therefore, Trooper Gosnell lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop, and the district court erred in denying the suppression motion.

The denial of the motion to suppress was reversed and the case was remanded with instructions to vacate his conviction.

Official US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit proceedings can be found at the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit website.

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