Author: Jim Chapman
In United States v. Hunter, ___ F.4th ___, 2023 WL 8405894 (3d Cir. Dec. 5, 2023), the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit joined six of its sister circuit courts in concluding that a routine criminal record check during a traffic stop is lawful under the Fourth Amendment. The relevant facts are as follows.
On December 12, 2018, Pennsylvania State Trooper Galen Clemons stopped a rented Chrysler 300 in Ridley Township, Pennsylvania. Neither the reason for the stop nor the legality of the stop at its outset was disputed. Trooper Clemons traveled alone—without a partner or back-up—and approached the car to discover two occupants: the driver, Jamar Hunter, and a front seat passenger, Deshaun Davis. After Hunter and Davis provided identification, Trooper Clemons returned to his patrol car to perform a routine license and warrant check, also known as a “CLEAN N.C.I.C.” check. This check revealed that both men had valid driver’s licenses and had no outstanding arrest warrants. At this point, Hunter argued that the mission of the traffic stop had ended and that Trooper Clemons no longer had Constitutional authority to prolong the stop.
Immediately after the routine check, Trooper Clemons performed an additional check that extended the traffic stop: he performed a computerized criminal history check, also known as a “Triple I” check. Trooper Clemons spent around five minutes conducting both checks in his patrol car, with the Triple I check taking approximately “a minute or two.” This computerized criminal history check revealed that both Hunter and the passenger had significant criminal histories, including firearm and drug trafficking convictions.
Armed with this information, Trooper Clemons returned to Hunter’s car and ordered Hunter out of the car so that he could perform a Terry frisk, during which Trooper Clemons discovered a loaded Glock-45 semi-automatic handgun in Hunter’s waistband. Accordingly, Trooper Clemons immediately arrested Hunter. The entire traffic stop lasted less than eight minutes.
Following his arrest, a federal grand jury indicted Hunter for possession of a firearm as a convicted felon in violation of federal law. Hunter, then, moved to suppress the gun seized from him during the traffic stop on the basis that Trooper Clemons’ use of the Triple I check impermissibly exceeded the traffic stop’s mission, and therefore, any evidence that Trooper Clemons recovered after he conducted the Triple I check should be suppressed under the Fourth Amendment. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted Hunter’s suppression motion based on the following determinations: (1) Trooper Clemons lacked sufficient reasonable suspicion before conducting the criminal history check; (2) the criminal history check was unrelated to the traffic stop’s mission; (3) the criminal history check prolonged the traffic stop; and (4) the criminal history check therefore impermissibly exceeded the stop’s mission and violated the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015), and the Fourth Amendment. The Government timely appealed on two grounds: (1) the District Court erred when it applied a subjective standard of review; and (2) the District Court erred as a matter of law in concluding that this criminal record check was an off-mission detour pursuant to Rodriguez and the Fourth Amendment.
The Third Circuit began its consideration of the Government’s arguments on appeal by noting that the Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable searches and seizures. A traffic stop, however brief, constitutes a seizure under the Fourth Amendment and is subject to review for reasonableness. Courts must review reasonableness through an objective lens and should not consider the actual or subjective intentions of the officer involved.
Upon consideration, the Third Circuit agreed with the Government that, in granting Hunter’s suppression motion, the District Court erroneously applied a subjective standard rather than the Constitutionally required objective standard. Specifically, the District Court considered Trooper Clemons’ subjective testimony that he routinely, but not always, performs the criminal history check during traffic stops. The District Court credited Trooper Clemons’ testimony that he would sometimes employ this check to bolster his reasonable suspicion. Grounding its reasoning in this subjective testimony, the District Court concluded that the criminal background check was, thus, not tied to the traffic stop’s mission.
However, the Third Circuit explained that Trooper Clemons’ subjective intent was immaterial and should not have been considered by the District Court when evaluating whether the use of the criminal history check, when viewed objectively, was justified under the circumstances. According, the Third Circuit found that the District Court erred as a matter of law in granting Hunter’s motion to suppress.
Furthermore, the Third Circuit found that the traffic stop at issue was objectively and reasonable under the Supreme Court’s holding in Rodriguez. Under Rodriguez, to be reasonable, a traffic stop must be justified at its inception, and the officer’s actions during the stop must be reasonably related to the mission of the stop itself. The Supreme Court defined a traffic stop’s mission to include completing “tasks tied to the traffic infraction,” such as issuing a traffic ticket, checking the driver’s license and any outstanding warrants, and inspecting registration and insurance. Rodriguez also permits the use of “certain negligibly burdensome precautions” when done to complete the mission safely. Off-mission detours that do not address the basis for the stop or legitimate safety concerns, such as a dog-sniff or extensive criminal history questioning, violate the Fourth Amendment when performed without reasonable suspicion.
In this case, the Third Circuit noted that the Parties agreed that the criminal history check did not qualify as a routine task tied to the traffic infraction, and the Government conceded that Trooper Clemons had completed the tasks specifically tied to the traffic stop when he finished the computerized N.C.I.C. driver’s license and warrant checks. Instead, the Government argued that the check was objectively reasonable under Rodriguez because the check was part of the stop’s mission due to officer safety.
According to the Third Circuit, officer safety during a traffic stop has been a longstanding and recognized concern. Indeed, the Supreme Court recognized this concern in Rodriguez, and the Supreme Court went one step further by concluding that the “officer safety interest stems from the mission of the stop itself.” In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court explained that “an officer may need to take certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his mission safely” and implied that conducting criminal record checks could be done in furtherance of officer safety. Here, the fact that Hunter and Davis outnumbered Trooper Clemons enhanced the safety concerns that the District Court should have considered, and viewing the circumstances as they existed at the scene of the stop, the Third Circuit concluded that it was reasonable for an officer to conduct this check pursuant to safety concerns.
Since Rodriguez, the First, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have all concluded that a routine criminal record check during a traffic stop is lawful under the Fourth Amendment. In this appeal, the Third Circuit agreed that, when necessary, in order to complete the mission of the traffic stop safely, a criminal history check is permissible and within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment. In this specific appeal, the Third Circuit held that Trooper Clemon’s criminal record check—which lasted approximately two minutes and was supported by objectively reasonable safety concerns—was a negligibly burdensome officer safety precaution that fell squarely within the confines of the stop’s mission.
Accordingly, the Third Circuit held that the District Court erred as a matter of law by applying a subjective reasonableness standard when evaluating whether the criminal record check in this case was part of the stop’s mission, reversed the District Court’s order granting the motion to suppress, and remand for further proceedings.