U.S. v. Townsend

Decision Date27 September 2002
Docket NumberNo. 00-4608.,00-4608.
Citation305 F.3d 537
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Sylvester TOWNSEND and David Green, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

David J. Horne (argued and briefed), U.S. Attorney Office, Dayton, OH, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Kevin M. Schad (argued and briefed), Schad & Cook, Indian Springs, OH, Lawrence J. Greger (briefed), Greger & Ovington, Dayton, OH, Sharon L. Ovington (argued), Greger & Ovington, Dayton, OH, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before KRUPANSKY and BOGGS, Circuit Judges; and LAWSON, District Judge.*


BOGGS, Circuit Judge.

The United States appeals the district court's order suppressing evidence and dismissing the indictment obtained against Sylvester Townsend and David Green. During a traffic stop, Ohio state patrolmen called for a drug-sniffing dog and then searched the trunk of the car in which the defendants were traveling. The district court held that, while the traffic stop was permissible, the detention of the automobile and the two defendants until the canine unit arrived, but beyond the time reasonably necessary to issue a traffic citation, was without reasonable suspicion and in violation of the Fourth Amendment. According to the district court, the invalid detention tainted the search and the evidence seized in the search was inadmissible. For the following reasons, we affirm the district court's judgment.


In the early morning hours of June 16, 1999, Ohio highway patrolmen Douglas Eck and John Chesser stopped an automobile traveling Eastbound on Interstate 70 in excess of the speed limit. The officers testified that, from the beginning of the stop, they found several things unusual. As they approached the vehicle, Townsend, who had been driving the car, put his hands in the air without prompting. When told that the radar indicated that they had been speeding at 76 MPH, Townsend immediately admitted that he had been traveling at 85. Townsend had his license, registration, and proof of insurance ready when Officer Eck arrived at his window. Officer Eck testified that he found this behavior reflective of an unusual eagerness to end the stop quickly.

Officer Eck returned to his patrol car, where another officer, James Myers, had arrived. At the suppression hearing, the three officers testified that the defendants acted nervously in the car, frequently looking back at the officers while they were processing the paperwork. Although Townsend's name matched the name listed on the proof of insurance for the car, the registered owner was different. Eck returned to the car and asked Townsend whether the owner of the automobile was present. Townsend said no. As it turns out, the car was registered to Townsend's mother. At the suppression hearing, Eck testified that he found the absence of the record owner suspicious as drug couriers often do not own the cars that they are driving.

Eck then questioned Townsend and Green regarding the purpose of their journey. Townsend claimed that they were traveling from Chicago to visit his sister in Columbus. Townsend said that he could not remember his sister's address in Columbus, but claimed that he had planned to call his sister once he reached the Columbus area. At the suppression hearing, Eck testified that he believed Townsend to be lying regarding the purpose of his journey, as he found it odd that Townsend had planned to call his sister in the early morning hours. Eck also testified that he believed Chicago to be a source city and Columbus a destination city for narcotics. The defendants' traveling between those destinations made Eck suspect that the defendants were transporting drugs, Eck testified.

The officers observed three cellular telephones and a Bible in the passenger compartment. According to Eck, the large number of cellular telephones were typical of drug couriers. In addition, Eck testified that, in his experience, drug couriers often prominently display religious symbols in their cars in order to deflect suspicion of drug smuggling.

The officers asked the defendants to exit their vehicle and frisked the defendants for weapons. The officers found no weapons on the defendants, but did detect what felt like a large roll of cash. According to Eck's testimony, he knew that drug couriers, engaging in a largely cash-based business, often carried large amounts of currency. The officers also searched the passenger compartment for weapons, but found none.

Finding no contraband in the passenger area of the car or on the person of the defendants, the officers ordered the defendants to sit in the back of the patrol car and called for a canine unit. Over thirty minutes later, another officer arrived with a drug-sniffing dog. The dog alerted on the trunk of the car. Because of the dog's indication, the officers opened and searched the trunk. They found nothing in the main luggage compartment of the trunk. The officers also dismantled a compact-disc-changer mechanism that was in the back of the trunk. Lodged inside the device were ten, apparently counterfeit, one-hundred dollar bills. The officers never found any trace of narcotics of any kind in the trunk. The officers arrested the defendants for possession of counterfeit currency.

The United States Attorney obtained indictments against the defendants for possession of counterfeit currency, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 472. The defendants moved to suppress the ten counterfeit bills seized during the officers' search of the trunk, arguing that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The district court conducted an evidentiary hearing and granted the defendants' motion. For the district court, the defendants' motion presented three distinct questions: whether the officers (1) had probable cause to believe a traffic violation was occurring to make the initial stop; (2) had reasonable suspicion of more extensive criminal activity sufficient to justify the continued detention of the defendants beyond the time reasonably necessary to issue the traffic citation; and (3) had probable cause to search the trunk. According to the court, the officers clearly had probable cause to believe that the defendants were speeding, validating the initial stop. The court held, however, that the officers lacked the reasonable suspicion required to detain the defendants and their car beyond the time reasonably necessary to issue the traffic citation. This invalid detention, according to the court, provided the officers with sufficient time for the canine unit to arrive. Without the dog's alerting on the trunk, made possible by the invalid detention, the officers would not have had probable cause to search the trunk. Accordingly, whatever the validity of the search with the information provided by the drug-sniffing dog, the district court held that the invalid detention tainted the search and, therefore, suppressed the counterfeit currency.

The government conceded that it lacked sufficient evidence, without the currency, to maintain the charges against the defendants and the indictment was dismissed by the court. The government now appeals the district court's order holding the officers' investigatory detention, and subsequent search, invalid under the Fourth Amendment and excluding from evidence the ten counterfeit bills seized during the search.


A police officer may effect a traffic stop of any motorist for any traffic infraction, even if the officer's true motive is to detect more extensive criminal conduct. United States v. Mesa, 62 F.3d 159, 162 (6th Cir.1995). To detain the motorist any longer than is reasonably necessary to issue the traffic citation, however, the officer must have reasonable suspicion that the individual has engaged in more extensive criminal conduct. That is, without such reasonable suspicion, all the officer's actions must be "reasonably related in scope to circumstances justifying the original interference." United States v. Hill, 195 F.3d 258, 264 (6th Cir.1999).

The reasonable suspicion required for continued investigatory detention is not as demanding a standard, however, as the probable cause required for the ultimate search. None of the parties disputes that the officers in this case validly effected the initial stop, or even that they had probable cause for the search of the trunk after the drug-detecting dog had alerted to the trunk. The sole question in this case is whether the officers had the reasonable suspicion necessary for the continued investigatory detention of the defendants, a detention that permitted the canine unit to arrive and that created the probable cause that would otherwise justify the search.

The district court determined that the officers lacked such reasonable suspicion. With regard to some of the officers' claimed reasons for suspecting the defendants of criminal activity, the district court held that they were not sufficiently significant as a matter of law. With regard to others, the district court simply did not believe that the officers relied on the factor. The district court's reasoning requires that this court carefully examine the applicable standard of review. As with most lower court determinations, findings of fact are reviewed for clear error and propositions of law de novo. See, e.g., United States v. Myers, 102 F.3d 227, 231 (6th Cir.1996) (reciting this formula in the probable cause context). The "reasonable suspicion" determination is ultimately a mixed question of law and fact (or, in other words, an application of law to fact), by which the court determines whether the facts surrounding the officer's determination are of sufficient legal significance to constitute reasonable suspicion. Accordingly, the application of the legal principles surrounding the nature of reasonable suspicion to the facts observed by an officer is reviewed de novo by this court, as mixed questions of law and fact typically are. Ornelas...

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