Author: Jim Chapman
In United States v. Cole, ___ F.4d ___, 2021 WL 5984977 (7th Cir. Dec. 17, 2021), Defendant Janhoi Cole was charged with possession of methamphetamine and heroin with the intent to distribute the drugs. Cole moved to suppress the drugs found by the police in his car after a traffic stop. Cole also moved to suppress the statements that he made during the traffic stop. The United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois denied Cole’s motion to suppress, and Cole entered a conditional plea, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.
A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s denial of Cole’s motion to suppress. Thereafter, the Seventh Circuit agreed to hearing the case en banc (i.e., by all of the active judges on the Seventh Circuit). Specifically, the Seventh Circuit agreed to hear the case en banc in order to resolve an apparent conflict between the panel’s decision in Cole and United States v. Lewis, 920 F.3d. 483 (7th Cir. 2019), as to whether travel-plan questions are part of the “mission” of a traffic stop under the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015). The relevant facts are as follows.
Sheriff’s Deputy Derek Suttles was on criminal interdiction patrol in central Illinois when he spotted a silver Volkswagen hatchback traveling east on the interstate. The car caught his attention because it was travelling 10 to 15 miles below the posted speed limit. Deputy Suttles also noticed a covering over the car’s rear cargo area. Deputy Suttles messaged Illinois State Police Trooper Clayton Chapman, who was doing criminal interdiction patrol further east on the interstate, and told him to look out for the Volkswagen.
Deputy Suttles relayed the information that he considered to be suspicious, along with the results of a license plate check. The check revealed that the Volkswagen had been sold and registered three weeks earlier to Cole with an address in Los Angeles, California. The car had been insured only four days earlier.
Eventually, Trooper Chapman spotted the Volkswagen, whose driver was leaned far back in the seat with his arms fully extended, obscuring his face, and began following the vehicle. Shortly thereafter, Trooper Chapman saw another car merge in front of the Volkswagen from the far-left lane. When the other car merged, the Volkswagen did not move into the right lane but, instead, followed closely behind the merged car. From his vantage point—about a football field behind the Volkswagen—Trooper Chapman determined that the Volkswagen was two car lengths or less behind the merged car.
Accordingly, Trooper Chapman stopped the Volkswagen for following too closely in violation of Illinois law. After calling in the license plate and confirming that the plate matched the car, Trooper Chapman approached the Volkswagen and asked the driver (Cole) for his license and registration. Cole produced his Arizona driver’s license and California registration. In response to Trooper Chapman’s questions, Cole confirmed that his license showed his current address and that he owned the Volkswagen. Trooper Chapman then asked Cole to sit in his squad car so that he could explain the purpose of the stop in a quieter, safer setting. While standing by Cole’s car, Trooper Chapman saw numerous drinks and snacks in the car, which led him to believe that Cole had been traveling long distances. Trooper Chapman also observed that the only luggage in the car was a small backpack.
Once in the squad car, Trooper Chapman spent about a minute explaining the details of how Cole had followed the other car too closely. Trooper Chapman then asked Cole about his Arizona driver’s license and California license plate. Cole offered, “I’m a chef. I spend most of my time between Los Angeles and Maryland and New York at work. But I genuinely had a job in Arizona. And I genuinely keep this driver’s license because of the expiration date.”
About four minutes into the stop, Trooper Chapman began inquiring into Cole’s travel plans. Trooper Chapman first asked where Cole was headed. Cole answered, Maryland, because his boss resided in Maryland. Following up, Trooper Chapman asked where Cole worked and for whom. Cole responded that he was a personal chef for two former professional football players and, in between, an ordinary chef. After confirming Cole’s destination (Maryland), Trooper Chapman asked Cole where his trip began. Cole did not answer the question initially. Instead, Cole offered that he had met up with some friends and family in Colorado Springs. Trooper Chapman asked, again, where the trip began, and this time, Cole clarified that his trip started in Maryland. From there, Cole stated that he went to Cincinnati, before heading to Colorado Springs, then to Boulder, and was going back home to Maryland when the trooper stopped him. Trooper Chapman asked Cole when he left on the trip, and Cole said about four to five days earlier.
Trooper Chapman then moved on to the vehicle’s information. Trooper Chapman questioned Cole as to how long he had owned the Volkswagen. Cole responded, six months, and added that he just had the paperwork transferred. Cole explained that the car was a recent purchase, that he had been driving with his friend’s paperwork, and that he had only recently acquired the insurance and registration. Looking at Cole’s paperwork, Trooper Chapman noted that the car had been registered on June 4, 2018. Cole verified that the information was correct and that his girlfriend had registered the car on that date.
Trooper Chapman next inquired where Cole was living. Cole said that he spent most of his time in Los Angeles, adding that he had a child in both Los Angeles and Florida and was planning to move to Florida. Trooper Chapman queried: “So, you’ve got an Arizona driver’s license that says Tucson ... I’m just trying to ... And you said you’ve been traveling from Maryland, so have you been staying recently in Maryland?” Cole replied, “Yes. I have family in Maryland. My boss is in Maryland. When I work in Maryland, I stay by my uncle. But this driver’s license, I genuinely keep it just because of the expiration. I haven’t been in Arizona in a long time.” Trooper Chapman followed up, “So your primary address, or your current address, is in California. But recently you’ve been staying in ....” Before he could finish, Cole interjected, “Yeah, cause I’m a chef. I travel.” Trooper Chapman asked, “Back and forth?” Cole said, “yes,” explaining that he went wherever he got jobs. Trooper Chapman concluded by asking Cole why he did not fly. Cole responded, “Fly? I have a car. And I travel with pots sometimes. I’m a chef. Occasionally I travel with a bicycle.”
Trooper Chapman thought that Cole’s travel details sounded vague and made up and that Cole appeared extremely nervous during the stop. Among other physical symptoms, Cole was breathing heavily, and his neck was sweaty.
Less than nine minutes into the stop, Trooper Chapman told Cole that he was going to issue him a warning. Trooper Chapman explained, however, that they would have to relocate to a nearby gas station for safety reasons. Cole returned to his own car, and the two drove separately to the gas station. At the gas station, Trooper Chapman called for a K-9 unit. While waiting, Trooper Chapman continued questioning Cole about his travel plans because he regarded Cole’s answers as increasingly suspicious. Trooper Chapman also learned from dispatch that Cole had been arrested three times on drug trafficking charges. About 45 minutes after the stop began, the K-9 unit alerted on Cole’s car. Officers searched the car and found large quantities of methamphetamine and heroin.
On appeal to the entire panel of the Seventh Circuit, Cole argued that Trooper Chapman had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by stopping him without reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation and by unreasonably prolonging the stop to inquire into his travel plans. As a result, Cole asserted that the District Court committed reversible error in denying his motion to suppress.
The Seventh Circuit began its Opinion by explaining that the Fourth Amendment protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has held that the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness. Reasonableness is measured in objective terms by examining the totality of the circumstances.
The Seventh Circuit continued by noting that traffic stops are seizures, and so, they must be reasonable under the circumstances. To be reasonable, a traffic stop must be justified at its inception, and reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place. Because traffic stops are typically brief detentions, more akin to Terry stops than formal arrests, they require only reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation—not probable cause. By the same token, traffic stops must remain limited in scope: “A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation.” Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 354. Police may not detour from that “mission” to investigate other criminal activity. A detour that prolongs the stop violates the Fourth Amendment unless the officer has reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity to independently justify prolonging the stop.
With that background, the Seventh Circuit stated that the first issue that the Court must address was whether Trooper Chapman had a lawful basis to initiate the stop of Cole’s vehicle. Specifically, the question was whether Trooper Chapman reasonably believed that he saw a traffic violation, not whether Cole actually violated the statute. The Seventh Circuit concluded that Trooper Chapman’s “estimation” of a short following distance by Cole justified the stop.
Next, the Seventh Circuit stated that the more substantial issue was whether Trooper Chapman unlawfully prolonged the traffic stop by inquiring about Cole’s itinerary. To answer this question, the Seventh Circuit reviewed the Supreme Court’s holding Rodriguez. In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court held that “the tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission.’” Id. at 354. The mission of a traffic stop, in turn, is to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns. Tasks within that mission include determining whether to issue a traffic ticket and pursuing ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop.
Typically, the ordinary inquiries incident to a traffic stop involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. Such inquiries fall within the mission of a stop because they serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly. In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court distinguished those ordinary inquiries from measures aimed at investigating other criminal activity, such as a dog sniff for drugs. As part of making these ordinary inquiries, the Seventh Circuit noted that no one could reasonably dispute that an officer may ask questions unrelated to the stop and even conduct a dog sniff if doing so did not prolong the traffic stop because an officer’s inquiries into matters unrelated to the justification for the traffic stop do not convert the encounter into something other than a lawful seizure, so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop.
Here, the Seventh Circuit determined that this recognition did not resolve the appeal, however, because the record was undeveloped as to whether Trooper Chapman’s travel-plan questions prolonged the stop. If they did not, then the travel plan questions would have been permissible even if they exceeded the mission of the stop. But because the District Court never made such a factual finding, the Seventh Circuit put this issue aside and asked whether Trooper Chapman’s travel-plan questions fell within the mission of the stop such that they could not have prolonged it in the first place.
In answering this question, the Seventh Circuit noted that, although Rodriguez did not address whether travel-plan questions fall within the mission of a traffic stop, the Opinion supplied an analytical framework for answering that question. Namely, courts must ask whether, in the totality of circumstances, reasonable travel-plan questions, like the other ordinary inquiries of a stop, are justified by the traffic violation itself or by the related concerns of highway and officer safety.
Applying the Rodriguez framework, the Seventh Circuit joined other circuit courts in holding that travel-plan questions ordinarily fall within the mission of a traffic stop. According to the Seventh Circuit, travel-plan questions supply important context for the violation at hand. In addition, a driver’s travel plans may also inform an officer’s assessment of roadway safety concerns beyond the immediate violation. At a more general level, travel plans typically are related to the purpose of a traffic stop because the motorist is traveling at the time of the stop. In that sense, travel-plan questions comport with the public’s expectations regarding ordinary inquiries incidental to traffic stops.
In short, the Seventh Circuit held that travel-plan questions are routine inquiries that reasonably relate to the underlying traffic violation and roadway safety. As a result, the Seventh Circuit concluded that such questions ordinarily fall within the mission of a traffic stop. However, officers do not have a free pass to ask travel-plan questions until they are subjectively satisfied with the answers. An officer’s travel-plan questions, like the officer’s other actions during the stop, must remain reasonable, and reasonableness is an objective standard based on all the circumstances.
Applying these principles here, the Seventh Circuit held that Trooper Chapman’s travel plan questions during the initial roadside detention fell within the mission of the traffic stop and did not unlawfully prolong the traffic stop. Accordingly, the full panel of the Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s denial of Cole’s motion to suppress.