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United States v. Morales.

No. 19-5059. N.D.Okla. Judge Matheson. Motion to Suppress—Fourth Amendment Search and Seizure—Reasonable Suspicion—Scope of Investigation following Traffic Stop.

June 8, 2020

An officer stopped defendant’s vehicle on an interstate highway for activating fog lamps in violation of law. During the first 10 minutes of the traffic stop, the officer questioned defendant and developed a suspicion that defendant and his passenger were engaged in illegal drug activity, based on defendant’s extreme nervousness, admission to prior convictions, and inconsistent answers. The officer then questioned the passenger for seven minutes. Defendant and the passenger gave inconsistent responses and contradictory answers to questions about their asserted destination and travel plans. The officer then called the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), a national law enforcement database that provides information about border crossings and criminal history, which took another 15 minutes. Thirty-two minutes into the encounter, defendant and his passenger consented to the officer’s search of the car. The search uncovered four vacuum-sealed bags containing a total of 4.11 kilograms of methamphetamine.

Defendant was charged with conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. He moved to suppress the methamphetamine, contending that the officer’s questions were unrelated to the stop and his actions impermissibly extended the stop. The district court determined that the officer had a reasonable suspicion of drug trafficking, but the EPIC call was an unreasonable delay, and it granted the motion to suppress.

The government filed an interlocutory appeal, contending that the district court erred in holding that the 15-minute EPIC database check rendered the traffic stop unconstitutional. When the government claims that reasonable suspicion supported the continued detention after an initial traffic stop, the further detention’s duration must last no longer than necessary to effectuate the purpose of either dispelling or confirming the officer’s reasonable suspicion. Here, the 15-minute EPIC call did not impermissibly exceed the scope or duration requirements for investigative detention because EPIC provides information on criminal history and border crossings, which was relevant to the officer’s drug trafficking suspicions.

The suppression ruling was reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

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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