U.S. v. Guzman

Citation864 F.2d 1512
Decision Date30 December 1988
Docket Number87-2231,Nos. 87-2325,s. 87-2325
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Jose Luis GUZMAN and Sonia Cruz-Lazo, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (10th Circuit)

William L. Lutz, U.S. Atty. James D. Tierney, Asst. U.S. Atty., Albuquerque, N.M., for plaintiff-appellant.

Howard Sohn, Miami, Fla., for defendant-appellee Guzman.

David J. Finger of Levine & Finger, Miami, Fla., for defendant-appellee Cruz-Lazo.

Before SEYMOUR and SETH, Circuit Judges, and O'CONNOR, * District Judge.

SEYMOUR, Circuit Judge.

Defendants Jose Guzman and Sonia Cruz-Lazo were each charged with one count of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. The district court granted defendants' motion to suppress evidence uncovered when their car was stopped. The United States appeals, and we remand for further proceedings.


On August 3, 1987, Jose Guzman and his wife, Sonia Cruz-Lazo, were driving a rented 1987 Cadillac with Florida license plates west through New Mexico on Interstate 40. The car was traveling at a lawful speed. New Mexico State Police Officer Keene testified that he noticed the car because its driver, Guzman, did not appear to be wearing his seat belt, a violation of the state's traffic regulations.

Officer Keene said that he followed the car for approximately three miles, pulling along side to confirm that the driver was not wearing a seat belt. He then pulled the car over. Guzman got out and approached the officer's cruiser, while his wife remained in the car. Officer Keene asked Guzman for his license and registration. Guzman gave the officer his license and informed him that the car was rented. They then returned to the car to retrieve the rental agreement.

Officer Keene asked Guzman why Hilario Lazo's name was on the agreement. Guzman explained that Lazo, his wife's uncle, had helped them rent the car because they did not have a major credit card of their own. Guzman also pointed out that he was an authorized driver. Officer Keene reviewed the rental agreement and driver's license, and concluded that both were in order. He then told Guzman that he had stopped him for a seat belt violation.

The officer admitted that at this point he had all the necessary information in connection with the violation. Rather than issue a warning or citation, however, he decided to conduct a further investigation. When asked to specify what he was investigating, Officer Keene said he was attempting to determine whether Guzman and Lazo were "hauling contraband in the vehicle." Rec., supp. vol. I, at 65.

Officer Keene began his supplemental investigation by again approaching defendants' car, allegedly to check the mileage. While he was comparing the odometer reading to the rental contract, Cruz-Lazo asked why they had been stopped. Officer Keene explained that Guzman had not been wearing his seat belt. He then asked a series of questions. Cruz-Lazo's replies were consistent with her husband's prior statement that they were en route from their home in Florida to vacation in Las Vegas. She also stated that they had saved $5000 for the trip.

Officer Keene testified that at the conclusion of his questioning of Cruz-Lazo, his suspicions were aroused. He explained that the noticeably pregnant Cruz-Lazo was perspiring and breathing heavily, while Guzman was not. The officer also testified that Cruz-Lazo seemed nervous and avoided making eye contact with him. Based upon these facts, Officer Keene decided to continue the detention. He proceeded to the rear of defendants' car where Guzman was waiting. He returned the rental contract, but retained Guzman's driver's license. While he began to write a warning for the seat belt violation, he continued his interrogation by asking Guzman numerous questions, including: whether his wife was employed, where he was headed, where he worked, when he got married, and if they were carrying any large sums of money. After completing the warning and handing it to Guzman, but without advising him that they were free to go, Officer Keene asked if they were carrying weapons or contraband. Guzman replied that they were not hiding anything, and that the officer was free to look.

Officer Keene then handed Guzman his driver's license and produced a consent to search form, which Guzman executed. The officer searched the trunk and found $5000 hidden in a shoe. He then searched the interior of the car and found a package of cocaine behind the rear seat. 1 Both defendants disclaimed any knowledge of the contraband. Officer Keene arrested defendants, and they were charged with possessing cocaine with intent to distribute in violation of 21 U.S.C. Sec. 841(a)(1) (1982).

Defendants filed motions to exclude all evidence discovered pursuant to the traffic stop. The motions challenged the legality of the initial stop, the extent of the subsequent seizure and investigation, and the consent to search. After an evidentiary hearing, the court found that the officer's testimony lacked credibility and granted the motion on the ground that the seat belt violation was merely a pretextual justification for an otherwise unconstitutional stop on suspicion of drug possession. The court also concluded that even if the initial stop were legitimate, the officer's "conduct was entirely beyond reason." Rec., supp. vol. I, at 94. The court excluded all evidence discovered during the stop.


A pretextual stop occurs when the police use a legal justification to make the stop in order to search a person or place, or to interrogate a person, for an unrelated serious crime for which they do not have the reasonable suspicion necessary to support a stop. The classic example, presented in this case, occurs when an officer stops a driver for a minor traffic violation in order to investigate a hunch that the driver is engaged in illegal drug activity. Although no evidence contradicted Officer Keene's assertion that Guzman was not wearing his seatbelt, the district court found that his purpose in stopping defendants' car was to investigate criminal drug activity, an intrusion for which the officer did not have a reasonable suspicion. Based on the officer's subjective intent to stop defendants for an unrelated and insupportable reason, the court held the stop unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment. The Government argues that if a driver violates a traffic law, a stop of his car can never be unconstitutional. We are thus presented with the question whether the constitutionality of a pretextual stop should be judged by a subjective or an objective standard.

Most circuits and commentators agree that an objective analysis of the facts and circumstances of a pretextual stop is appropriate, rather than an inquiry into the officer's subjective intent. See, e.g., United States v. Causey, 834 F.2d 1179, 1182 (5th Cir.1987) (en banc); United States v. Miller, 821 F.2d 546, 549 (11th Cir.1987) (applying United States v. Smith, 799 F.2d 704 (11th Cir.1986)); United States v. Hawkins, 811 F.2d 210, 213 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 108 S.Ct. 110, 98 L.Ed.2d 69 (1987); 1 W. LaFave, supra, Sec. 1.4; Amsterdam, Perspectives on the Fourth Amendment, 58 Minn.L.Rev. 349, 436-37 (1974). But see United States v. Smith, 802 F.2d 1119, 1124 (9th Cir.1986) ("whether an arrest is a mere pretext to search turns on the motivation or primary purpose of the arresting officers"). This court has also indicated that an objective approach is the correct one. See Lessman v. McCormick, 591 F.2d 605, 610 (10th Cir.1979) (reasonable practice, not subjective purpose, governs).

The courts do not agree, however, on what objective elements are dispositive in determining whether a pretextual intrusion is unconstitutional. In United States v. Smith, 799 F.2d 704 (11th Cir.1986), a state trooper stopped a car that was weaving in its lane because he had a hunch that the vehicle was carrying drugs. Although the officer testified that he had not stopped the car because it was weaving, the Government on appeal contended that the stop was justified as either a valid traffic stop or as a stop to investigate drunk driving. The Eleventh Circuit held that "in determining when an investigatory [or traffic] stop is unreasonably pretextual, the proper inquiry ... is not whether the officer could validly have made the stop but whether under the same circumstances a reasonable officer would have made the stop in the absence of the invalid purpose." Id. at 709.

In United States v. Causey, 834 F.2d 1179 (5th Cir.1987) (en banc), a majority of the Fifth Circuit rejected the Smith test. In that case, police who wished to interrogate a bank robbery suspect based on less than probable cause discovered and used an outstanding arrest warrant arising from an unrelated petty offense. The dissent argued that the arrest was unconstitutional, citing Smith and pointing out that the police conduct at issue was so unprecedented that no reasonable officer would have undertaken the activity absent an invalid purpose. The majority held, to the contrary, that no unreasonable arrest occurs as long as the police "do no more than they are objectively authorized and legally permitted to do." Id. at 1184. 2 Under the holding in Causey, therefore, a pretextual intrusion is constitutional as long as the pretext itself is lawful.

The pretext doctrine lies at the confluence of two distinct interests. An examination of a police officer's subjective intent in individual cases would unwisely involve the courts in unproductive inquiries. See United States v. Arra, 630 F.2d 836, 845 n. 12 (1st Cir.1980) (recognizing that officers may simply adopt the proper purpose as the basis for their action); Amsterdam, supra, at 436-37. Conversely, an objective test that asks no more than whether some set of facts might justify a given stop would permit arbitrary intrusions in situations such as traffic stops. Under such a test, thousands of everyday citizens...

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