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THE DURATIONAL LIMITS ON A ROUTINE TRAFFIC STOP

In the 2017 case of Commonwealth v. Cordero, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that a police officer could not legally detain a driver in order to wait for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive on the scene, once the police officer had dealt with the motor vehicle infraction and had verified that the driver was licensed and had no outstanding warrants.

The case involved a vehicle stop for a broken light and for window tinting that was too dark.  Before pulling the defendant over, the state trooper used his dashboard computer to confirm that the vehicle was owned by and registered to the defendant, that the defendant’s driver’s license was valid, and that the vehicle was properly registered, inspected, and insured. He also confirmed that there were no warrants for the defendant’s arrest and that the defendant had no pending criminal charges.  The trooper also discovered that the defendant lived in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and had been convicted of charges of firearms violations, drug offenses, and assault and battery on a police officer, and had been incarcerated for the drug-related convictions.

The trooper noticed that the defendant seemed to be “extremely nervous,” not making eye contact, stuttering when he answered questions, and offering information unrelated to the stop.  The defendant also allegedly offered suspicious explanations about his destination.  The trooper ultimately delayed the stop of the defendant to wait for a drug-sniffing dog, and drugs were allegedly found in the trunk of the defendant’s car.

In reversing the denial of his motion to suppress the results of the search of the trunk, the Supreme Judicial Court observed that a routine traffic stop may not last longer than “reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.”  Com. v. Amado, 474 Mass. 147, 151 (2016).  “[A] police inquiry in a routine traffic stop must end [when the purpose of the stop is accomplished] unless the police have grounds for inferring that `either the operator or his passengers were involved in the commission of a crime . . . or engaged in other suspicious conduct'” (citation omitted). Com. v. Torres, 424 Mass. 153, 158 (1997).

“In order to expand a threshold inquiry of a motorist and prolong his detention, an officer must reasonably believe that there is further criminal conduct afoot, and that belief must be based on `specific and articulable facts and the specific reasonable inferences which follow from such facts in light of the officer’s experience.'”  Com. v. Feyenord, 445 Mass. 72, 77 (2005).

The SJC made some important points in this case, to wit:


  1. That the defendant exhibited signs of nervousness and evasiveness in the context of an involuntary police encounter cannot, without more, generate reasonable suspicion.
  2. A defendant’s evasive answers about where he had come from and where he was going do not give rise to a reasonable suspicion of illegal drug activity because “an officer’s mission includes . . . such inquiries . . . [as] checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance,” and not inquiring where the driver is coming from or going to.
  3. A suspect’s connection to a location that is called a drug “source city” cannot, standing alone, support reasonable suspicion.
  4. A suspect’s prior convictions, without further specific and articulable facts indicating that criminal activity was afoot, does not create reasonable suspicion.
  5. Where a trooper has performed most of his investigatory tasks before pulling a suspect over, that fact reduces the time necessary for the trooper’s roadside investigation.

So, how long can an officer keep you on the side of the road for a routine traffic stop?  Only as long as reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.

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