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How Long is Too Long for a Traffic Stop?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 16, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Traffic stop laws aren’t always clear, so we often see suppression challenges stemming from traffic stops in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This week, we have a case that demonstrates that traffic stop laws are even less forgiving toward tractor-trailer drivers than they are toward average motorists.

A New Mexico police officer stopped defendant Julio Lopez-Merida and his co-driver, Gil Manfredo Ruiz, after spotting a loose air-brake hose between the tractor and the trailer that could be frayed on the tractor deck. The cop told Lopez-Merida why he had stopped the vehicle and showed him the loose connection. He then asked for the truck's log book and shipping papers.

Lopez-Merida told the officer that he was hauling watermelons from New York. The bill of lading, however, showed that the cargo was cantaloupes headed to New York; and the log book indicated that the destination was Columbus, Ohio. That's where the lies began to unravel.

According to the officer, Lopez-Merida appeared nervous, and a number of the details he provided -- like his point of origin, his destination, and how long he had been driving -- were inconsistent with the log.

The traffic stop officer called in a New Mexico Motor Transportation Division (MTD) agent, who placed both drivers out of service. The MTD officer conducted a safety inspection of the trailer and found 101 packages of marijuana. Lopez-Merida was later convicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute 100 kilograms or more of marijuana.

On appeal, Lopez-Merida challenged the duration of the detention. He argued that the officers' questioning was unrelated to the loose brake hose and impermissibly prolonged the detention, permitting the officers to acquire incriminating evidence. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

Generally, a traffic stop is only reasonable if justified at its inception and reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference, but an officer can request the documents during a traffic stop concerning the travel -- such as driver's license, registration, rental contract, or a truck driver's log and shipping documents.

An officer may also inquire about the trip being taken and ask questions on any subject so long as the questioning does not prolong the detention beyond what is otherwise necessary to perform such routine tasks as computer checks and preparing reports and citations.

If a driver or passenger's responses to such questions and other observations during the stop create reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime is afoot, the officer can take reasonable steps to investigate. Thus, the duration of Lopez-Merida's stop conformed to traffic stop laws.

If you have a client who works in a highly-regulated profession, that client may be subject to more extensive police questioning during the performance of his duties. If such questioning results in criminal charges, you're unlikely to prevail on a suppression motion based on the duration of the stop or questioning.

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