United States v. Erickson Campbell (11th Cir. January 2019)

The Federal Docket

January 5, 2019

Fourth Amendment – A valid traffic stop becomes an unlawful seizure when a law enforcement officer unnecessarily prolongs the duration of the stop by asking the motorist questions unrelated to the purpose of the stop.

Erick Campbell appealed the district court’s order denying his motion to suppress evidence discovered during a search of his vehicle. The district court held that the stop that led to the search was supported by reasonable suspicion and that the stop was not unreasonably prolonged.

A sheriff’s deputy pulled over Campbell for having a malfunctioning turn signal which was “rapidly blinking.” While issuing Campbell a warning for the traffic violation, the deputy began questioning Campbell about where he was headed, who he was going to see, where he worked, whether he was traveling with a firearm, and about Campbell’s DUI arrest from sixteen years ago. The deputy also asked Campbell whether he was carrying counterfeit items, drugs, or “dead bodies” in his car. Campbell consented to a search of his car, where the officer found a firearm. Campbell was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

On appeal from the district court’s denial of Campbell’s motion to suppress, the Eleventh Circuit held that the initial stop was supported by reasonable suspicion. Since the rapid blinking was a design feature meant to alert the driver that a bulb is out or about to go out, the Court held that the deputy reasonably believed that the turn signal was not in “good working condition” in violation of Georgia’s traffic laws.

Though the stop was initially valid, however, the Court held that the deputy unlawfully prolonged the stop in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), thereby abrogating its prior precedent in United States v. Griffin, 696 F.3d 1354 (11th Cir. 2012).

In Rodriguez, the Supreme Court held that officers unreasonably prolonged a traffic stop when the officers conducted a dog sniff of the vehicle after issuing the driver a warning ticket. The Court held that, rather than considering whether the length of the traffic stop was overall reasonable, the proper inquiry is whether the duration of the stop was “longer than necessary to complete its mission.” Accordingly, the new standard after Rodriguez is whether “an officer, without reasonable suspicion, diverts from the stop’s purpose and adds time to the stop in order to investigate other crimes.”

In the case at hand, the Court held that the deputy’s questions relating to Campbell’s travel plans were related to the purpose of the stop, but the questions relating to counterfeit items, firearms, and drugs were unrelated inquiries that added a total of 25 seconds to the stop. Since those questions were not based on a reasonable suspicion, they unlawfully prolonged the stop and tainted the ensuing search.

Despite the unlawful stop, the Court declined to suppress the evidence, holding that the deputy reasonably relied on Griffith, which was binding precedent at the time. While the Court acknowledged that the government did not raise the good faith issue on appeal, it held that the good faith issue was sufficiently briefed at the district court level, and ignoring the clear applicability of the good faith exception in this case would be a “miscarriage of justice.”

In dissent, Judge Martin argued that the good faith exception should not apply because the government failed to raise that argument on appeal. Judge Martin concluded that the Court should not be “in the business of resuscitating arguments the government was made aware of, then clearly abandoned,” noting that the Court “rarely extends the same courtesy to the criminal defendants and pro se litigants who come before us.”

Appeal from Middle District of Georgia

 Opinion by Tjoflat, joined by Murphy (by designation from E.D. Mich.)

Dissent by Martin

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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