Because a New Jersey policeman prolonged a traffic stop past the point of its intended purpose, a firearm and marijuana cigarette found on a passenger is inadmissible as evidence.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in a precedential decision denied the prosecution’s appeal of a ruling below that evidence obtained by Edison Township police officer Daniel Bradley from defendant Theodore “Tyrone” Clark during the 23-minute stop could not be used against him.
Clark was traveling with driver Donald Roberts in Clark’s van. Bradley pulled Roberts over for driving at night without headlights and for using a phone while driving, Third Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro said in the Aug. 30 decision.
Bradley interrogated Roberts as to where he drove from, the vehicle registration, and whether he had any outstanding warrants. Roberts claimed the van belonged to his mother, and that he was traveling from her house.
Bradley separated Roberts and Clark, then switched and asked Roberts how long he had known the other man, to which he replied, not long. In an attempt to test the veracity of Roberts’ story, Bradley asked Clark the same question and received a different answer: that the two had been friends for a long time, according to the court.
Upon another round of questioning, Roberts denied lying, so Bradley went back to Clark and asked him to step out of the vehicle after detecting a strong marijuana odor, Ambro wrote. A pat-down of Clark produced a joint and .357 caliber handgun, and Clark was taken into custody, while Roberts was allowed to leave with a summons for traffic violations, according to the decision.
Subsequently, Clark filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the traffic stop, claiming Bradley improperly extended the encounter past its purpose.
Ambro explained that the legal purpose of a traffic stop is to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and see to any related safety concerns—which can extend to checking the driver’s record for any outstanding warrants—but to go no further than ensuring roadway safety.
“We agree with the district court that, given the information confronting Bradley when he confirmed through the computerized check that Roberts was authorized to drive the vehicle, and when there was no fact calling that authority into doubt, Bradley no longer could have reasonably questioned it,” Ambro said. “Bradley’s inquiry into Roberts’ criminal history was thus not tied to the traffic stop’s mission, and, at that point, ‘tasks tied to the traffic infraction … reasonably should have been … completed.’”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Norman Gross declined to comment.
Clark’s attorney, Lisa Van Hoeck of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, did not respond to a request for comment.