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A police officer who makes a traffic stop has at least 17 minutes to question the driver and passengers without violating their constitutional rights, a federal appeals panel has stated. That idea came last week in a footnote by Chief Judge J.L. Edmondson of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision allowed Alabama federal prosecutors to pursue a case against a woman accused of transporting drugs in her car. Louis Franklin, chief of the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Alabama, said the ruling should straighten out the varying interpretations within the circuit about how long a traffic stop may last. “We needed some clarification,” Franklin said. “We’ve just kind of been wondering — we’ve had some different time frames when we get to a stop.” The case involved Joanna Hernandez, who was headed from Houston to Atlanta in June 2003 when her car was stopped for going eight miles above the speed limit on Interstate 65 in Alabama. Edmondson wrote for a three-judge panel that during 17 minutes of questioning by an Alabama state trooper, Hernandez and ex-boyfriend Jesus Salazar, the driver, gave conflicting reasons why they were going to Atlanta. Hernandez said they were visiting a sick aunt; Salazar said they were not. Also, Edmondson reported, Salazar said he was speeding because Hernandez was ill and badly needed a restroom, even though they had just passed an exit that would have led them to restrooms. The trooper became suspicious, according to the decision, and asked Hernandez for permission to search the car. She later was arrested and charged with transporting 43 pounds of cocaine in a secret compartment. U.S. v. Hernandez, No. 04-11776 (11th Cir. July 29, 2005). Salazar was not charged. But Judge Mark E. Fuller of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama dismissed the case against Hernandez, ruling that the trooper exceeded acceptable limits for questioning and detaining someone who had been driving just eight miles per hour above the speed limit. Federal prosecutors appealed and won a reversal from Edmondson and Judges Joel F. Dubina and Frank M. Hull. They ruled that Hernandez’s suspicious details and conflicting answers justified the trooper’s prolonged questioning. TOO SHORT Edmondson concluded with a half-page footnote about whether a 17-minute stop ever could be considered too long. “Where at its inception a traffic stop is a valid one for a violation of the law,” Edmondson said, “we doubt that a resultant seizure of no more than seventeen minutes can ever be unconstitutional on account of its duration: the detention is too short.” Todd A. Brown represented the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Montgomery, Ala., before the 11th Circuit. Federal prosecutor Franklin said questions remain about when a stop lasts too long, but the court has better defined when a stop is too short to pose a problem. Hernandez’s attorney, Ruben Ramirez of McAllen, Texas, said his client plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. Ramirez said that his petition for certiorari could ask the justices to review the 17-minute rule. “It was kind of interesting that they would say that — forever — 17 minutes would not be an intrusion,” Ramirez said. REASONABLE SUSPICION Ramirez also questioned whether the 11th Circuit heeded two of its previous decisions: a 2003 ruling in U.S. v Perkins, 348 F.3d 965; and a 1990 ruling in U.S. v. Tapia, 912 F.2d 1367. Ramirez in his appellate brief said the facts of Hernandez’s case were almost identical to those in Tapia, in which the court said that reasonable suspicion for detention requires more than “being Mexican, having few pieces of luggage, being visibly nervous or shaken during a confrontation with a state trooper, or traveling on the interstate with Texas license plates.” Edmondson mentioned both the Perkins and Tapia cases in his ruling but added that the circumstances in Hernandez’s case created more reason for suspicion than in Perkins and Tapia, in which defendants merely acted nervous and drove with out-of-state licenses. The trooper in Hernandez’s case had reasonable suspicion, Edmondson said, because of Salazar’s implausible explanation for speeding — that Hernandez was ill and needed a restroom. Edmondson noted in the opinion that “rest stops were few and far between” and suggested that had Hernandez truly been ill, they would have stopped at the first exit in which a restroom was available. The woman also refused another trooper’s offer of a ride to the nearest restroom, according to the federal government’s brief to the appeals court. Edmondson said the Constitution does not require police to move as fast as possible during a traffic stop, citing a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, U.S. v Sharpe, 470 U.S. 675. “At a traffic stop, the police can occasionally pause for a moment to take a breath, to think about what they have seen and heard, and to ask a question or two,” Edmonson said. The judge said that “even if seventeen minutes is some minutes longer than the norm, we question whether the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of unreasonable seizures is concerned with such trifling amounts of time, when the seizure was caused at the outset by an apparent violation of the law.”

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