Fourth Amendment – A traffic stop becomes a consensual encounter when the motorist feels free to terminate the encounter based on circumstances such as: whether the officer is acting in a coercive manner, whether the motorist has everything they need to proceed on their journey, and whether the encounter is cooperative or confrontational in nature.
Among other issues, Leonardo Triana appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress, where he argued his consent to search the vehicle was tainted by an unlawfully prolonged traffic stop.
Triana was pulled over by law enforcement for having a tinted license plate cover. Though Triana could only speak “broken English” and had a hard time understanding the patrol officer, Triana eventually understood the officer and explained that the tint was legal in Florida (where he was coming from) and that he would remove it. The officer asked Triana and his passenger where they were headed and who owned the truck.
Ten minutes after initiating the stop, the officer printed a written warning for the tint violation. He also requested another officer to assist in translating English to Spanish and printed out a consent-to-search form. The officer handed Triana the written warning. He also gave Triana directions when Triana asked where he could go to remove the tint.
After answering Triana’s question, the officer began asking Triana if he had any drugs or weapons in the car based on his observation that “transporting large objects like the freezer in the back of Triana’s truck can be a sign of drug trafficking activity.” When Triana responded in the negative, the officer asked for consent to search the truck. Triana consented, and the officers found the fraudulent Walmart gift cards that formed the basis of Triana’s charges.
On appeal, Triana argued that the stop was unlawful under Rodriguez, where the Supreme Court held that a traffic stop is unlawful when unreasonably prolonged by an officer’s unrelated inquiries, especially when those inquiries are aimed at uncovering additional crimes unrelated to the traffic stop.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected Triana’s argument, however, holding that this stop had morphed into a “consensual encounter.” The Court stressed that there is no “bright-line” test for when a traffic stop stops being a seizure and becomes a consensual encounter but that a consensual encounter exists where “a reasonable person would feel free to terminate the encounter” under the circumstances. These circumstances include whether the police behaves in a coercive manner, the nature of the exchange between the motorist and officer, and whether a motorist has everything they need to proceed on their journey.
Here, the stop became a consensual encounter after Triana received his written warning and documents. The court contended that Triana felt free to leave based on his asking the officer questions about where to remove the tint after receiving the written warning. It was also relevant to the Court that the officer asked Triana if he could ask him more questions before he asked Triana whether he had drugs or cash in the truck. Under these circumstances, the Court held the encounter was consensual, not an unreasonably prolonged traffic stop, and Triana’s consent to search the vehicle was not tainted.
Appeal from the Middle District of Georgia
Per Curiam Opinion by Wilson, Martin, and Jordan