Traffic Stops: How Long is Too Long?

How long can a police officer detain a motorist for a routine traffic violation?  If the motorist appears nervous, does that give the officer reason to prolong the stop?  What if the officer had spotted the driver’s car earlier that day near a house used in suspected drug activity?

There is no brightline rule, but in Seabolt v. State, 152 P.3d 235 (Okla.Crim. 2006), the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that without more, the circumstances detailed above do not justify extending a traffic stop for 25 minutes to wait for a canine unit.

According to the Court’s decision:

On March 3, 2004, a police officer with the Muskogee Police Department stopped Seabolt for failure to signal a left hand turn. Seabolt produced a driver’s license and insurance verification. The officer reported the traffic stop to dispatch, ran Seabolt’s license and began writing a warning citation. The officer also called for a canine unit because Seabolt appeared nervous and he recognized the car as one he had seen earlier that day at a house suspected of drug activity. The officer testified that, other than his perception that the driver was nervous, he did not see, hear or smell anything to indicate drugs were in the car. The canine unit arrived approximately 25 minutes later and the dog alerted on Seabolt’s car.

Based on these circumstances, the Court concluded that the stop violated Seabolt’s rights under the Fourth Amendment.  According to the Court,

[T]he record leads us to conclude this was a routine traffic stop, which should have resulted in a correspondingly abbreviated detention. The officer should have issued the warning citation to Seabolt expeditiously. Had he done so, Seabolt would have left the scene prior to the arrival of the canine unit.

This rule of law has its roots in the reasonableness prong of the Fourth Amendment.  While the government may stop and briefly detain citizens for traffic violations, the length and scope of those stops must be reasonably tailored to the underlying violation.  In other words, police are not permitted to use minor traffic violations to convert a simple stop into a full-blown investigatory detention.

However, that is not to say that police cannot investigate the circumstances of the stop itself.  For example, if the officer observes a marijuana cigarette in the ash try, that evidence would give the officer probable cause to expand the stop, arrest the driver and call for a canine unit to more fully investigate the vehicle and its contents.

If you have questions about police stops or police-citizen encounters, contact a car accident attorney at Bryan & Terrill Law, 918-935-2777.