779 S.E.2d 248 (Ga. 2015), S14G1765, State v. Allen

Docket Nº:S14G1765
Citation:779 S.E.2d 248, 298 Ga. 1
Opinion Judge:Nahmias, Justice.
Party Name:THE STATE v. ALLEN et al
Attorney:James L. Wright III, District Attorney, Blair D. Mahaffey, Assistant District Attorney, for appellant. Veal & Lamar, Holly W. Veal; William C. Puckett, Jr., for appellees.
Judge Panel:NAHMIAS, Justice. All the Justices concur, except Benham, Hunstein, and Melton, JJ., who dissent. Benham, Justice, dissenting.
Case Date:November 02, 2015
Court:Supreme Court of Georgia

Page 248

779 S.E.2d 248 (Ga. 2015)

298 Ga. 1

THE STATE

v.

ALLEN et al

S14G1765

Supreme Court of Georgia

November 2, 2015

Page 249

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 250

Certiorari to the Court of Appeals of Georgia -- 328 Ga.App. 411.

James L. Wright III, District Attorney, Blair D. Mahaffey, Assistant District Attorney, for appellant.

Veal & Lamar, Holly W. Veal; William C. Puckett, Jr., for appellees.

NAHMIAS, Justice. All the Justices concur, except Benham, Hunstein, and Melton, JJ., who dissent.

OPINION

Page 251

Nahmias, Justice.

A police officer initiated a traffic stop of the car being driven by appellee Patrick Scott, in which appellee Dorian Allen was a passenger. About eight minutes into the stop, the officer radioed for a computer records check on both Scott and Allen. While awaiting the response based on Allen's out-of-state identification card, the officer conducted a free-air dog sniff of the car, and about 11½ minutes into the stop, the dog alerted, giving the officer probable cause to continue the detention of Scott and Allen and to search the car. The search led to the discovery of almost ten pounds of marijuana in the trunk and the arrest and indictment of Scott and Allen.

They moved to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that the traffic stop was unreasonably and thus unconstitutionally prolonged by the records check on the car's passenger. The trial court granted the suppression motion. After the Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling in a divided decision, we granted certiorari, and we now reverse. As explained below, under the precedents of this Court and the United States Supreme Court establishing how the constitutionality of a traffic stop should be reviewed, it is clear in this case that the computer records check on the stopped car's passenger was part of the authorized mission of the traffic stop, and it is also clear that the officer conducted the records check and the stop as a whole with reasonable diligence. Accordingly, the stop was constitutional, and Scott and Allen's motion to suppress should have been denied.

[298 Ga. 2] 1. (a) When reviewing a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress, " an appellate court must construe the evidentiary record in the light most favorable to the factual findings and judgment of the trial court." Hughes v. State, 296 Ga. 744, 746 (770 S.E.2d 636) (2015). This means that the reviewing court generally must accept the trial court's findings as to disputed facts unless they are clearly erroneous, although the reviewing court may also consider facts that " definitively can be ascertained exclusively by reference to evidence that is uncontradicted and presents no questions of credibility," such as facts indisputably discernible from a videotape. Id. at 746 & n. 5. Viewed in this way, the evidence at the suppression hearing, which consisted of the testimony of the arresting officer and the video and audio recording of the traffic stop made by his police car's dashboard camera (which also captured some of the radio transmissions made by the officer), shows the following.

On the evening of September 13, 2012, Henry County Police Officer Nicholas Jackson was sitting in his police car with his drug dog and another officer, watching southbound traffic on I-75. Officer Jackson observed a vehicle make an improper lane change and saw that the car's driver had his finger pointed " all in the passenger's face." Based on these observations, the officer surmised that the vehicle's occupants were arguing. Concerned that the driver was distracted, Officer Jackson decided to catch up with the car, and as he did so, he saw the car make additional illegal lane changes and that the driver was still reaching over and pointing in the passenger's face. The officer then initiated a traffic stop of the car, which pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway, where the police car parked behind it.

Officer Jackson approached the stopped car on the passenger side.1 He told Scott, who was the driver, and Allen, who was in the front passenger's seat, why he had pulled them over, but the two men denied arguing.

Page 252

Officer Jackson asked both men for identification. Scott handed the officer his Georgia driver's license and the car's registration information, and Allen provided his South Carolina identification card but told the officer that his current address was not the one on the card. Officer Jackson then told the men that he was going to issue a warning for the improper lane changes. This all took about 2½ minutes.

[298 Ga. 3] Officer Jackson had not smelled any marijuana or seen any drugs or drug paraphernalia in the car, but because of the lane infractions, he wanted to make sure Scott was not intoxicated, so he asked Scott to exit the car and walk over to the police car; Scott did not appear impaired. While standing in front of the police car, Officer Jackson conducted a pat-down search of Scott, finding no weapons; the officer then began writing the warning citation as he talked with Scott, explaining the warning and asking where Scott was driving. The officer next walked back to the car, where Allen was still sitting, to ask for his current address and where he and Scott were driving. Then the officer went back to the police car and Scott and resumed writing the citation. This all took about 4½ minutes.

It took about another minute for Officer Jackson to finish writing the warning; the traffic stop had lasted about eight minutes at this point. The officer then radioed Scott's and Allen's identification information to the police dispatcher to run computer records checks through GCIC and NCIC.2 Just seconds after Officer Jackson finished relaying the information, the dispatcher reported back that Scott's Georgia license was " crystal clear," but she asked the officer to repeat Allen's information and the ensuing check on Allen's out-of-state identification card took longer. Officer Jackson explained to Scott that he was waiting on the return of Allen's information and asked for consent to search the car. Scott declined. Officer Jackson then asked Allen to step out of the car and join Scott in front of the police car; the officer also asked Allen if he had any weapons, and Allen said he did not. The officer never gave the men back their identification cards or told them they could leave.

About a minute after being denied consent to search, the officer retrieved his dog and began a free-air sniff around the stopped car. Less than a minute later, Officer Jackson put the dog away and informed Scott and Allen that the dog had alerted for the presence of drugs, meaning that he had probable cause to search the vehicle. At this point, Scott and Allen had been stopped for about 11½ minutes. About three minutes later, while the officer was conducting the search of the car, the dispatcher reported back that Allen's South Carolina identification card was clear. Officer Jackson continued the search, found a box with approximately 9.8 pounds of marijuana in the car's trunk, and arrested Scott and Allen.

(b) After Scott and Allen were indicted for possession of the marijuana, they moved to suppress the drug evidence, arguing that [298 Ga. 4] it was found only as a result of their illegal detention. After the suppression hearing, the trial court granted the motion. The court concluded that Scott and Allen were being unlawfully detained at the time the drug dog alerted because " [b]y the time this event occurred, the police investigation of the traffic violation which justified the stop had been concluded, and a warning citation had been issued," and because " [n]o valid law enforcement purpose was served by conducting a computer check of the passenger's identification, and it was unlawful to extend the detention of both Defendants while this was done."

The State took an immediate appeal. See OCGA § § 5-7-1 (a) (4), 5-7-2 (b) (1). The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling in a 4-3 decision, with the majority opinion holding that " the officer -- having accomplished the tasks related to his investigation into lane infractions and having no reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity aside from the traffic violation -- unreasonably prolonged the duration of the traffic stop when he initiated the computer check." State v. Allen, 328 Ga.App. 411, 415-416

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(762 S.E.2d 111) (2014) (footnote omitted). We granted the State's petition for certiorari.

2. A trial court's conclusion that a traffic stop was unreasonably prolonged may often be a fact-intensive determination, but it is ultimately a holding of constitutional law that we review de novo. See Jones v. State, 291 Ga. 35, 36-37 (727 S.E.2d 456) (2012) (" To the extent [a suppression] issue concerns a mixed question of fact and law, we accept the trial court's findings on disputed facts and witness credibility unless they are clearly erroneous, but independently apply the law to the facts." ). We have no quibble with the facts of this case as found by the trial court or as recounted by the Court of Appeals, but those courts erred in applying the established law of traffic stops to those facts.

(a) Scott and Allen do not dispute that their initial seizure by the police -- the stop of their vehicle -- was lawful based on the lane-change violations that Officer Jackson observed. As the U.S. Supreme Court has explained, however,

a seizure that is lawful at its inception can violate the Fourth Amendment if its manner of execution unreasonably infringes interests protected by the Constitution. A seizure that is justified solely by the interest in issuing a warning ticket to the driver can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete that mission.

Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407 (125 S.Ct. 834, 160 L.Ed.2d 842) (2005) (citation omitted). Thus, " the tolerable duration of...

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