A Traffic Stop, a ‘Friendly’ State Trooper, and Cocaine in the Trunk: Can the Evidence Be Suppressed?
Here’s a case recently decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that teaches why you should be on your guard when law enforcement seems a bit too friendly during a traffic stop.
Skillful and Friendly Demeanor
In U.S. v. Bradley, a Pennsylvania state trooper pulled over a driver who was allegedly weaving in his lane of travel and speeding on Route 81 outside of Harrisburg. When the trooper asked the driver for his license and registration, the driver admitted that his driver’s license was suspended and advised the trooper that the car was rented. The driver gave the trooper an ID card and rental agreement. He admitted that he had been cited for driving with a suspended license “a couple of times.”
The trooper, who suspected criminal activity, adopted a “skillful and friendly” demeanor to coax information out of the driver. He told the driver in a cheerful way, “my man, I got bigger things to worry about, it’s almost the end of my shift,” and that they could “work through” the issue of the suspended license because it wasn’t “a big deal.” Then in an I’m-just-here-to-help tone of voice, according to the opinion, the trooper told the driver that he was going to bring him back to the police car to see if he could give him a break.
After the driver was patted down for weapons and none were found, the two got into the police cruiser, with the trooper in the driver’s seat and the driver in the passenger’s seat. There, the trooper made frequent comments to put the driver at ease, such as “Take a deep breath, bud, take a deep breath,” and he frequently called him “bro,” “bud,” and “my man.” The trooper informed the driver that he was going to give him a warning for speeding and that he would not cite him for weaving in his lane of travel.
Then the tables turned.
The trooper questioned the driver on whether there were any guns, marijuana, large sums of U.S. currency, heroin or cocaine in the car. The driver denied having any of those items, but the trooper noticed a deviation in the way that the driver responded to the question of cocaine.
A second trooper arrived and stood next to where the driver sat. The trooper asked again whether any of the previously listed items were in the car. This time, flanked by state troopers, the driver admitted that he had cocaine.
The trooper quickly recited Miranda warnings to the driver, telling him that he was not free to leave. Under more questioning, the driver admitted to having “a lot” of cocaine in the vehicle and said it was in the trunk. The trooper returned to the vehicle to search for cocaine and found about a kilo in a backpack lying in the trunk.
The driver was indicted for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. He moved to suppress both his confession and the physical evidence, including the drugs, and the federal trial court ruled in his favor. However, the government appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed to hear an appeal on the issue of whether the evidence in the trunk was admissible because it inevitably would have been discovered by law enforcement.
On appeal, the government argued it was established through the Dashcam evidence and the testimony of the trooper that the driver was driving with a suspended license and therefore could not continue driving the car. Police procedure called for the vehicle to be towed and impounded and that necessarily meant there would have been an inventory search that would have revealed the cocaine.
Citing case law, the Third Circuit found merit to the argument:
Evidence obtained by the police unlawfully may nonetheless be admitted into evidence “if the prosecution can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that the information ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means. … One lawful means by which the police may discover evidence is to conduct an inventory search of an impounded vehicle, as “inventory searches are now a well-defined exception to the warrant requirement of the Fourth Amendment.
Accordingly, the Third Circuit court vacated the District Court’s order suppressing the cocaine evidence and remanded the case back to the District Court to take further evidence on police procedures, including protocols for the conduct of an inventory search and the scope of an officer’s discretion during such a search before making a final determination on whether the cocaine evidence would have been inevitably discovered.
It remains to be seen whether the District Court will find that the cocaine evidence would have inevitably been discovered. For now, be mindful: If an overly friendly police officer stops you for a traffic violation, the officer’s demeanor is probably too good to be true.
As always, we will keep you advised of future developments.