Length of Vehicle Stop – is reasonableness the standard?

Many people are familiar with the concept that police officers cannot keep a person pulled over for an unreasonable length of time without a good reason. However, that is an unreasonable length of time and what is a good reason are both concepts that are open to interpretation. A recent case in the South Carolina Court Supreme Court may help illustrate this issue and give some guidance on how to better define these concepts.
In the case of State v. Karriem Provet, Appellate Case No. 2011-192746, on writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals, the defendant was pulled over for following too closely and having a burned out license plate light. The officer noticed the defendant’s hands were shaking excessively and he was breathing quickly. As the officer wrote the warning, he asked the defendant some questions, which the defendant answered but gave suspicious answers. As the officer went back to the defendant’s vehicle with the defendant, the officer noticed several air fresheners, fast food bags, and a bag on the back seat. All of these things indicated to the officer that the defendant might be in possession of drugs, as dealers many times have these types of items in their vehicles.
The officer gave the defendant his license, registration, and warning ticket. The officer then asked for permission to search the vehicle, and the defendant gave permission. The search revealed cocaine in one of the fast food bags.
Provet moved to suppress the cocaine, saying it was as the result of an illegal search. Everyone knows that the Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, but in this case the trial court denied Provet’s motion to suppress and found that here there were essentially two detentions. The first was for the traffic violation, which was completed when the officer gave the defendant his license and warning ticket. The second detention started when the officer asked for permission to search the car and the defendant gave his consent. Provet was convicted and he appealed.
The South Carolina Court of Appeals reviewed this case and it found that the proper question “…is not whether an officer ‘unreasonably’ extended the duration of the traffic stop with his off-topic questions but whether he ‘measurably’ extended it. This is a temporal inquiry, not a reasonableness inquiry.” What this means is that the proper question to ask is not whether the stop was unreasonably long, but whether it was measurably too long. The Court seemed to say that the officer asking a couple of questions like “Can I search your car?” is not enough to make the stop too long. Once the defendant gave permission, it was no longer part of the original stop, but a separate interaction.
This may not seem like it cleared anything up, but it is an important distinction. It is a good illustration that there is no set time limit on a vehicle stop, and it would do no good to say it was unreasonably long because it was fifteen minutes instead of ten minutes. The important question to ask is whether the officer kept a motorist pulled over longer than necessary to carry out the business of the stop, keeping in mind, as this case illustrates, that more than one “stop” may occur if the right facts are present.
I hope this helps clear up this murky point of law for you. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at 843-822-9800 or by email at jimcourtneylaw@ymail.com.

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