When Law Enforcement Extends a Traffic Stop

Law enforcement may stop vehicles for many reasons related to driving behavior or the condition of the vehicle. Driving too fast. Swerving. Failing to use a turn signal. Not coming to a complete stop. Touching the fog line. Abrupt stopping. Speeding up and slowing down without reason. Broken tail light. Heavy window tint. The list goes on.

Most people who get stopped will be nervous, anxious, angry, or otherwise distressed. Totally typical when a person’s travels are unexpectedly interrupted and the risk of unknown legal trouble lurks behind flashing red-and-blues.

At the same time, every officer will report fear for their own safety as a top priority and preoccupation during each and every traffic stop. And there’s good reason for this, too. Hard to know what kind of person you are going to be dealing with in a tense moment based solely on the make, model, and condition of their vehicle plus their driving behavior along with other context clues (time, place of the stop; other objective factors).

In this complex and emotionally charged moment, a traffic stop occurs. Today’s post is about something simple, but great importance when it comes to traffic stops: how long can they last and can the police extend the stop?

Traffic stops are constitutionally protected events. They are considered “seizures” under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as well Article 1, Section 4 of the Wyoming Constitution. Consequently, the police must abide by the limits imposed by constitutional law in executing a legitimate traffic stop. While there are many nuances to the constitutional law surrounding traffic stops, several principles are more clear than others.

First, traffic stops based upon a police officer’s observations of a minor traffic infraction or vehicle condition issue may only last as long as it takes for an officer to request necessary documents from the driver, run a computer check on the driver and the vehicle, and issue a citation or a warning unless the officer discovers objectively reasonable evidence that additional criminal activity is afoot. See Brown v. State, 439 P.3d 726, 732 (Wyo. 2019); Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 350-351 (2015). Second and relatedly, police may not use observations of minor traffic violations as “a pretext to conduct narcotics investigations.” O’Boyle v. State, 117 P.3d 401, 409 (Wyo. 2005); Damato v. State, 64 P.3d 700, 705 (Wyo. 2003); Arkansas v. Sullivan, 532 U.S. 769, 772-773 (2001) (Ginsburg, J., concurring).

The United States Supreme Court and the Wyoming Supreme Court have repeatedly instructed that the police may not take additional investigative steps after a lawful traffic stop has been fully completed without any justification to extend the traffic stop. See Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 350-351; Mahaffy v. State, 2021 WY 63, ¶¶ 20-21. Even an unjustified extension lasting only one and a half minutes, see Mahaffy, 2021 WY 63, ¶ 21, is unconstitutional under Wyoming law.

Motorists have very few tools to limit police investigations during lawful traffic stops. One of these tools, however, is time. The police cannot extend the length of a traffic stop without some objective reason for doing so.

Now, to be sure, courts are starting to shift to a new approach to evaluating extended traffic stops that insulates law enforcement from constitutional scrutiny altogether: the consensual encounter. See, e.g. United States v. Mercado-Gracia, 989 F.3d 829, 835-838 (10th Cir. 2021).

If at any stage in a police-civilian encounter, a reasonable person in the civilian’s shoes would feel free to end the conversation and leave, but chooses to remain, then the encounter will be considered “consensual,” which means neither the U.S. Constitution nor the Wyoming Constitution provide any protections to the civilian. So, after the police issue a motorist a ticket or a warning, effectively ending the traffic stop, the police may attempt to engage the motorist in further conversation without any constitutional protections in place.

Motorists should take heed: keep your traffic stops professional and brief. Be polite, but direct with law enforcement. Keep your hands visible. As soon as you are able, leave the stop in a safe manner without further conversation with the officer that may delay your travels and complicate your interaction.

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