United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the court on a motion to suppress filed by
Gonzalo Esteban Colina Rodriguez (“Rodriguez”).
Based on the parties' filings and the evidence produced
at the hearing on this matter, the court denies the motion to
17, 2017, at about 12:37 A.M., Lance Corporal K.L. Bird
(“Bird”) of the South Carolina Highway Patrol
(“SCHP”) stopped a maroon BMW hatchback with
Florida plates for improper lane violations as it headed
south on Interstate 95. The government claims that, due to
the lane violations and the time of night, Bird was concerned
that the driver might be impaired by intoxication and/or lack
of sleep. For several minutes at the beginning of the stop,
Bird engaged in casual conversation with Rodriguez, which the
government argues was part of his investigation into whether
Rodriguez was impaired. During this conversation, Bird
learned that Rodriguez was from Cuba, spoke some English, and
was travelling with his brother who was sitting in the
passenger seat. After several minutes of conversation, Bird
went back to his patrol vehicle to transmit Rodriguez's
information to the El Paso Intelligence Center
(“EPIC”), a database containing information from
different law enforcement agencies. It took about 20 minutes
for Bird to give the pertinent information to EPIC and to
receive the results. After finishing his search of the EPIC
database, Bird got out of his car and returned to Rodriguez
to briefly ask further questions about his trip, the items in
his vehicle, and whether he had any illegal contraband. Bird
then returned Rodriguez's personal documents to him and
explained the warning that Rodriguez was receiving for the
traffic violation. During this conversation, Bird had the
written warning in his hand extended to Rodriguez, although
Rodriguez did not take the warning. Bird then asked Rodriguez
if he could search the vehicle. Rodriguez paused and then
replied “Ok” and “Yeah.” For the next
ten minutes, Bird and another trooper who had arrived on the
scene searched the vehicle and found about $134, 500 in U.S.
currency hidden under the backseat in heat-sealed plastic
bags. The other officer then read Rodriguez and his brother
Miranda warnings and placed them under arrest.
was indicted on one count of aiding and abetting bulk cash
smuggling into the United States, in violation of 31 U.S.C.
§ 5332 and 18 U.S.C. § 2. On December 21, 2017,
Rodriguez filed a motion to suppress this evidence, claiming
that he was unreasonably detained and that he did not validly
consent to the search. On March 23, 2018, the government
filed a response. The court held a hearing on June 20, 2018.
The government and defense filed post-hearing supplemental
briefs. The motion is now ripe for the court's review.
challenges the seizure of the evidence found in his car based
on two grounds: (1) the traffic stop became an illegal
detention when Bird impermissibly extended the stop; and (2)
the search was not consensual.
Was the stop impermissibly extended?
Fourth Amendment guarantees the right of the people “to
be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and
effects.” U.S. Const. amend. IV. A traffic stop is a
“seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth
Amendment and must be reasonable under the circumstances.
See Delaware v. Prouse, 440 U.S. 648, 653-54 (1979).
A warrantless search is “per se unreasonable”
unless one of the specifically established exceptions, like
consent, is present. Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412
U.S. 218, 219, (1973). The constitutionality of a traffic
stop is assessed under the two-prong standard in Terry v.
Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). First, the articulated basis
for the traffic stop must be legitimate. See United
States v. Rusher, 966 F.2d 868, 875 (4th Cir. 1992).
Second, the officers' actions during the traffic stop
must be “reasonably related in scope” to the
basis for the seizure. Id.
first prong is satisfied “whenever it is lawful for
police to detain an automobile and its occupants pending
inquiry into a vehicular violation.” Arizona v.
Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 327 (2009). A “vehicular
violation” includes a failure to comply with traffic
laws. Id. In Whren v. United States, 517
U.S. 806, 809-810 (1996), the Supreme Court held that a
traffic stop did not violate the plaintiff's Fourth
Amendment rights where the officer had probable cause to
believe several vehicle code violations had been committed.
The Whren court stated that “[a]s a general
matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable
where the police have probable cause to believe that a
traffic violation has occurred.” Id.
does not question the validity of the initial stop. Bird
testified that he initially stopped the vehicle because he
observed it quickly change lanes and “extend on over
into the emergency lane, crossing the white line to the
right.” Tr. 52:5-10. Bird testified that swerving over
the solid white line on a highway constitutes a traffic
violation. Id. Thus, the traffic stop met the
requirements of the first prong of Terry.
second prong of the Terry test asks if the officer
took impermissible actions after initiating the traffic stop.
“If a police officer wants to detain a driver beyond
the scope of a routine traffic stop, [ ] he must possess a
justification for doing so other than the initial traffic
violation . . . [and] a prolonged automobile stop requires
either the driver's consent or a reasonable suspicion
that illegal activity is afoot.” United States v.
Branch, 537 F.3d 328, 336 (4th Cir. 2008).
“Authority for the seizure . . . ends when tasks tied
to the traffic infraction are-or reasonably should have
been-completed.” Rodriguez v. United States,
135 S.Ct. 1609, 1614 (2015). A stop exceeds “the
permissible duration and scope of a routine traffic
stop” when the officer “fail[s] to diligently
pursue the purposes of the stop and embark[s] on a sustained
course of investigation into the presence of [contraband] in
the car that constitute[s] the bulk of the encounter between
the officer and the defendant.” United States v.
Guijon-Ortiz, 660 F.3d 757, 759 (4th Cir. 2011)
(internal quotation marks omitted). A de minimis
delay does not violate the Fourth Amendment; rather
“the principal inquiry . . . is the officer's
diligence-i.e., his persevering or devoted application to
accomplish the undertaking of ascertaining whether the
suspected traffic violation occurred, and, if necessary,
issuing a ticket.” Id. (internal quotation
may conduct certain safety-related checks such as requesting
a driver's license and vehicle registration, checking for
criminal records, and outstanding arrest warrants, “so
long as” these unrelated inquires did not
“measurably extend the duration of the stop.”
Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 615. “[A]n officer
reasonably may search a computer database during a traffic
stop to determine an individual's prior contact with
local law enforcement, just as an officer may engage in the
indisputably proper action of searching computer databases
for an individual's outstanding warrants.”
United States v. Hill, 852 F.3d 377, 379 (4th Cir.
2017). Further, an officer's decision to search databases
beyond those of the Department of Motor Vehicles
(“DMV”) and the National Crime Information Center
(“NCIC”) does not violate a defendant's
Fourth Amendment rights. Id.
reviewed the dashcam footage from Bird's police vehicle,
which began recording the moment that Bird turned on his blue
lights, the court finds that his actions meet the
requirements of the second prong of Terry. From the
moment the dashcam video began recording until minute 2 of
the dashcam video, Bird was pulling over Rodriguez and
notifying South Carolina Highway Patrol dispatch of the stop.
Tr. 56:18- 57:17. At 2:15, Bird approached the passenger side
of the vehicle. From 2:30-3:50, Bird requested and received
Rodriguez's license and registration and asked Rodriguez
several times to step out of the vehicle. From 4:00-8:30,
Bird conversed with Rodriguez and his brother about where
they were coming from and where they were going. At the
hearing, Bird explained that-because of the late hour and the
fact that he observed the car quickly change lanes and swerve
over the white fog line-he was concerned that the driver
might be impaired, either due to intoxication or lack of
sleep. Tr. 64:12-18, 65:1- 3, 69:14-18, 70:15-19, 70:7-19.
Bird chose to spend several minutes making conversation with
Rodriguez to determine whether he was impaired and whether he
would be a danger to himself and others if he was allowed
back on the road. Id. Bird also chose to have
Rodriguez step out of the vehicle and have this conversation
behind the car because it was safer for them both, it would
be easier for Bird to determine any impairment, and it would
be easier for the dashcam video ...