United States v. Gastelum (8th Cir. September 2021)

The Federal Docket

September 27, 2021

Fourth Amendment/Traffic Stop – Officer did not unlawfully prolong traffic stop where reasonable suspicion existed to extend the stop based on the incongruity between the defendant’s stated travel plans and his rental car agreement, inconsistencies in the defendant’s travel history, the disparity between the cost of flying versus renting a car, and the defendant’s emphasis on his military background in respond to questioning.

Fourth Amendment/Consent – A defendant’s consent to search the trunk was voluntary despite the officer initially commanding him to open the trunk and allow him to search, where the circumstances show the officer was not acting confrontational and he subsequently confirmed that he had the defendant’s permission to search.

Aldo Gastelum was arrested and charged with drug offenses after state troopers conducted a warrantless search of his car during a traffic stop. Gastelum argued that the officer had unlawfully prolonged the stop before the warrantless search.

The Tenth Circuit rejected his argument. The trooper had initially pulled over Gastelum for an unsafe lane change and the two discussed Gastelum’s travel plans. Gastelum stated he had rented the car in Houston and was driving to Chicago before flying back home to California, and he explained he was visiting Army Reserve facilities to try to find a job there. The trooper ran Gastelum’s information and discovered that the car rental was for only one day. After 15 minutes, the trooper printed Gastelum a warning ticket and returned to Gastelum’s vehicle.

After handing Gastelum the warning ticket, the trooper asked about Gastelum’s luggage and asked Gastelum to open the trunk and if he could look through the trunk. The trooper looked in the trunk and found cocaine in a duffle bag.

The Court on appeal held that the officer did not unlawfully prolong the traffic stop because there was reasonable suspicion to extend the stop after the officer printed the warning ticket. The Court looked at “the totality of the circumstances” which included the officer’s experience, the fact that the rental car was rented for a period of time that was too short to accomplish Gastelum’s stated goals of visiting reserve centers, inconsistencies in Gastelum’s stated travel history, and the fact that flying would have been much cheaper than renting the car for one day. The Tenth Circuit cited prior precedent finding reasonable suspicion based on “the incongruity between [a defendant’s] short rental period and his described travel plans” and “the ‘outwardly puzzling decision to rent a car for a one-way trip at substantial expense.’” The Court also opined that Gastelum’s explanation for the purpose of his trip “did not make sense” and cited prior opinions involving “odd answers” and “strange travel plans.” The Court also found Gastelum’s emphasis on his military background as suspicious.

The Court also held that Gastelum’s consent to search the trunk was voluntarily given, though it acknowledged that the trooper’s initial comment (“come on out and pop that trunk on your way out”) was problematic. The officer had subsequently confirmed that Gastelum consented to a search. The Court also emphasized that Gastelum was an “intelligent adult with a college education and military experience,” making it more likely his choice to consent was informed.

Judge Kelly dissented, agreeing that the officer did not unreasonably prolong the stop but arguing that the officer did not obtain voluntary consent to search the trunk. He emphasized that the officer did not initially ask to search, but instead dictated to Gastelum that he would be searching the trunk and commanding him to pop the trunk.

On appeal from the Western District of Arkansas
Opinion by Erickson, joined by Loken
Dissenting opinion by Kelly

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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