Rhoton v. Commonwealth, 2019-SC-0298-DG

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
Writing for the CourtOPINION OF THE COURT BY JUSTICE KELLER
Citation610 S.W.3d 273
Parties Rickey Allen RHOTON, Appellant v. COMMONWEALTH of Kentucky, Appellee
Docket Number2019-SC-0298-DG
Decision Date29 October 2020

610 S.W.3d 273

Rickey Allen RHOTON, Appellant
v.
COMMONWEALTH of Kentucky, Appellee

2019-SC-0298-DG

Supreme Court of Kentucky.

OCTOBER 29, 2020


COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Karen Shuff Maurer, Assistant Public Advocate.

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Daniel J. Cameron, Attorney General of Kentucky, James Daryl Havey, Assistant Attorney General.

OPINION OF THE COURT BY JUSTICE KELLER

Rickey Allen Rhoton entered a conditional guilty plea to charges of first-degree possession of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance not in original container, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Rhoton was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, probated for three years. He now appeals the Court of Appeals’ affirmation of the Bath Circuit Court's denial of his motion to suppress evidence. For the following reasons, we affirm.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On the afternoon of October 1, 2016, Kentucky State Police Trooper Joseph Zalone was on routine patrol in the Peasticks community of Bath County. Trooper Zalone knew of the area's reputation as a high-crime area for drug trafficking and illegal possession of narcotics. Trooper Zalone observed a blue Toyota Camry with an unbelted passenger. Trooper Zalone executed a traffic stop of the vehicle which was driven by Rhoton. Trooper Zalone approached Rhoton's window and observed a small, screw-top metal canister, approximately two inches long by one-and-a-half inches wide, in the center console. The canister was of a type that, in Trooper Zalone's experience, was often used to conceal illegal narcotics. Trooper Zalone asked Rhoton if he had any drugs in the

610 S.W.3d 275

car, to which Rhoton responded negatively. Rhoton declined Trooper Zalone's request to search the vehicle.

Trooper Zalone returned to his cruiser with Rhoton's license and registration as well as the passenger's relevant information. Trooper Zalone radioed for assistance from a nearby canine unit as he began preparing the citation. Trooper Zalone testified that it ordinarily took him ten to fifteen minutes to complete a citation for a seatbelt violation. Trooper Zalone ran the ordinary records checks on Rhoton and his passenger, discovering the passenger had an unrelated active arrest warrant. Owingsville Police Officer Bud Lyons and his drug dog arrived 25 minutes after the initial traffic stop and while Trooper Zalone was still in his vehicle preparing Rhoton's citation and confirming information regarding the passenger's warrant. At this point, Officer Lyons assisted Trooper Zalone in removing Rhoton and his passenger from the vehicle.

After removing Rhoton and his passenger from the vehicle, Officer Lyons conducted an external sweep of Rhoton's car, and the dog alerted to the driver's door. Once the door was opened, the dog also alerted to the driver's seat. Trooper Zalone then searched the interior of the automobile in the area the dog alerted and found a partially zipped pouch between the driver's seat and center console. He could see the orange-capped tips of two syringes partially sticking out of the pouch. Upon further inspection of the pouch, Trooper Zalone found additional syringes and plastic wrap containing crushed and melted pills. The metal canister in the console was empty. Rhoton accepted ownership of the bag and admitted that the pills were oxycodone. Rhoton was arrested and subsequently indicted for first-degree possession of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance not in original container, and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Rhoton moved the trial court to suppress the evidence seized during the traffic stop arguing that Trooper Zalone impermissibly prolonged the stop to facilitate the dog sniff search. Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied Rhoton's request. The trial court found two rationales for the denial. First, the trial court found that Trooper Zalone's extension of the stop was not excessive given the need to take Rhoton's passenger into custody pursuant to his outstanding warrant. Second, even absent the need to take the passenger into custody, the trial court found that Trooper Zalone's observation of the metal canister taken in conjunction with the stop occurring in a high-drug activity area, provided reasonable articulable suspicion of ongoing criminal activity sufficient to prolong the traffic stop. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court. Rhoton filed a motion for discretionary review which we granted.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Kentucky Rule of Criminal Procedure ("RCr") 8.27 governs motions to suppress evidence and requires the trial court to "state its essential findings on the record."1 A trial court's denial of a motion to suppress is reviewed under a two-prong test. First, we review the trial court's findings of fact under the clearly erroneous standard.2 Under this standard, the trial

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court's findings of fact will be conclusive if they are supported by substantial evidence.3 Second, we review de novo the trial court's application of the law to the facts.4 In the current case, the facts are largely undisputed, and the issue turns on the second prong of the suppression test: did the trial court and Court of Appeals properly apply the facts to the law?

III. ANALYSIS

Rhoton moved to suppress the incriminating evidence discovered in his vehicle, as well as his subsequent admissions, on the basis that the evidence was the fruit of an illegal search that occurred after the lawful traffic stop was unlawfully extended. "It has long been considered reasonable for an officer to conduct a traffic stop if he or she has probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred."5 Furthermore, an officer's subjective motivations for the stop are not relevant, "[a]s long as an officer ‘has probable cause to believe a civil traffic violation has occurred[.]’ "6 While officers may detain a vehicle and its occupants to conduct an ordinary stop, such actions may not be excessively intrusive and must be reasonably related to the circumstances justifying the initial seizure.7 The United States Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. United States said that even a de minimis delay beyond the time needed to pursue the original purpose of the stop fails a constitutional test absent other circumstances.8

An officer's ordinary inquiries incident to a traffic stop do not impermissibly extend such stop.9 Included in such ordinary inquiries are an officer's review of the driver's information, auto insurance and registration, and the performance of criminal background checks of the driver and any passengers.10 In order to extend the stop beyond that required to complete its initial purpose, something must occur during the stop to create a "reasonable and articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot."11

Our two most recent cases applying Rodriguez are Commonwealth v. Smith12 and Carlisle v. Commonwealth .13 In Carlisle , rendered earlier this year, we affirmed the trial court's denial of a motion to suppress.14 Rodney Carlisle was the passenger in a truck driven by Christopher

610 S.W.3d 277

Hughes that was stopped by officers for improper equipment.15 Officers took Hughes's and Carlisle's identification and, upon doing a check, found Hughes's driver's license was suspended and that both had prior convictions for drug or gun charges.16 Officers told Hughes and Carlisle there would be no citation issued, but Hughes had to park the truck and leave it at a nearby gas station.17 Officers then requested, and received, permission to search the truck.18 During the search, they found a backpack, apparently belonging to Carlisle, containing items associated with the drug trade including unused syringes, multiple cell phones, and butane.19 The discoveries led officers to believe that any drugs were likely on Hughes's or Carlisle's persons.20 A search of Carlisle's person resulted in the discovery of marijuana and methamphetamine.21

Carlisle, in his motion to suppress, argued that officers illegally extended the traffic stop beyond its original purpose and that their continued detention of Carlisle after the conclusion of the traffic stop was an illegal seizure.22 We stated that the stop had not concluded; rather, officers had reason to maintain control of the scene to ensure that Hughes did not continue to drive the vehicle with faulty equipment and a suspended license.23 We further...

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7 practice notes
  • Commonwealth v. Clayborne, 2020-SC-0058-DG
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
    • 30 September 2021
    ...551 S.W.3d 26; Lane, 553 S.W.3d 203; Mitchell, 610 S.W.3d 263; Smith, 542 S.W.3d 276; Bucalo, 422 S.W.3d 253; cf. Rhoton v. Commonwealth, 610 S.W.3d 273 (Ky. 2020). In fact, since Rodriguez, this Court has only once-in Rhoton v. Commonwealth-held that a dog sniff on a vehicle originally sto......
  • Commonwealth v. Clayborne, 2020-SC-0058-DG
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
    • 30 September 2021
    ...551 S.W.3d 26; Lane, 553 S.W.3d 203; Mitchell, 610 S.W.3d 263; Smith, 542 S.W.3d 276; Bucalo, 422 S.W.3d 253; cf. Rhoton v. Commonwealth, 610 S.W.3d 273 (Ky. 2020). In fact, since Rodriguez, this Court has only once-in Rhoton v. Commonwealth-held that a dog sniff on a vehicle originally sto......
  • Commonwealth v. Conner, 2020-SC-0099-DG
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
    • 16 December 2021
    ...266.52 Id.53 Id. at 270 (quoting Mitchell v. Commonwealth , 2017-CA-001539-MR, 2019 WL 258162, at *3 (Ky. App. Jan. 18, 2019) ).54 Id.55 610 S.W.3d 273 (Ky. 2020).56 Id. at 278-79. We reiterated, however, that "this new purpose of the stop must be diligently pursued." Id. at 279.5......
  • Williams v. Commonwealth, NO. 2019-CA-1492-MR
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Kentucky
    • 5 March 2021
    ...and registration, and the performance of criminal background checks of the driver and any passengers." Rhoton v. Commonwealth, 610 S.W.3d 273, 276 (Ky. 2020) (footnotes omitted). Carlisle and Rhoton supersede our allegedly contrary decision in Moffett v. Commonwealth, No. 2014-CA-00163......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
7 cases
  • Commonwealth v. Clayborne, 2020-SC-0058-DG
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
    • 30 September 2021
    ...551 S.W.3d 26; Lane, 553 S.W.3d 203; Mitchell, 610 S.W.3d 263; Smith, 542 S.W.3d 276; Bucalo, 422 S.W.3d 253; cf. Rhoton v. Commonwealth, 610 S.W.3d 273 (Ky. 2020). In fact, since Rodriguez, this Court has only once-in Rhoton v. Commonwealth-held that a dog sniff on a vehicle originally sto......
  • Commonwealth v. Clayborne, 2020-SC-0058-DG
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
    • 30 September 2021
    ...551 S.W.3d 26; Lane, 553 S.W.3d 203; Mitchell, 610 S.W.3d 263; Smith, 542 S.W.3d 276; Bucalo, 422 S.W.3d 253; cf. Rhoton v. Commonwealth, 610 S.W.3d 273 (Ky. 2020). In fact, since Rodriguez, this Court has only once-in Rhoton v. Commonwealth-held that a dog sniff on a vehicle originally sto......
  • Commonwealth v. Conner, 2020-SC-0099-DG
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (Kentucky)
    • 16 December 2021
    ...266.52 Id.53 Id. at 270 (quoting Mitchell v. Commonwealth , 2017-CA-001539-MR, 2019 WL 258162, at *3 (Ky. App. Jan. 18, 2019) ).54 Id.55 610 S.W.3d 273 (Ky. 2020).56 Id. at 278-79. We reiterated, however, that "this new purpose of the stop must be diligently pursued." Id. at 279.5......
  • Williams v. Commonwealth, NO. 2019-CA-1492-MR
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Kentucky
    • 5 March 2021
    ...and registration, and the performance of criminal background checks of the driver and any passengers." Rhoton v. Commonwealth, 610 S.W.3d 273, 276 (Ky. 2020) (footnotes omitted). Carlisle and Rhoton supersede our allegedly contrary decision in Moffett v. Commonwealth, No. 2014-CA-00163......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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