Once stopped by police, how long can they lawfully hold you up?
It depends upon the circumstances but the most important factor to begin with is the original reason for the initial stop.
If it was a traffic stop for speeding, a reasonable amount of time for the traffic stop would be whatever amount of time is normal and reasonable for a police officer to give a speeder a citation and send them on their way. Anything longer would be an unlawfully prolonged detention.
If police detention is prolonged beyond its reasonable justification under the circumstances, it is an illegal detention requiring a judge to suppress evidence found as a result.
The Individual’s right to be Free from Unreasonable Searches and Seizures
The United States and Minnesota Constitutions guarantee the individual’s natural right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. U.S. Const. amend. IV; Minn. Const. art. I, 10.
The Minnesota Supreme Court has held that Article I, section 10, of the Minnesota Constitution, requires application of Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), when evaluating the reasonableness of seizures during traffic stops when a minor law has been violated. State v. Askerooth, 681 N.W.2d 353, 363 (Minn. 2004).
The United States Constitution guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. Const. Amend. IV.
A traffic stop or investigatory detention is an intrusion upon your liberty – a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. An investigatory detention, a brief seizure by police based on a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, is a narrow exception to the probable cause requirement of the Fourth Amendment. Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 26-27 (1968).
The police officer must have a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity before imposing an investigatory detention. A reasonable, articulable suspicion means that there must be specific and articulable facts, and rational inferences drawn from those facts, reasonably suggesting that criminal activity has occurred or is imminent. This is an objective standard, not a subjective one.
After a police officer has stopped a vehicle, he or she “may ask the detainee questions in order to dispel or confirm his suspicions, but questioning is limited in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop.” United States v. McGauley, 786 F.2d 888, 890-91 (8th Cir. 1986). The U.S. Supreme Court said in Berkemer v. McCarty, 468 U.S. 420, 439-40 (1984):
“The stop and inquiry must be reasonably related in scope to the justification for their initiation. Typically, this means that the officer may ask the detained a moderate number of questions to determine his identity and to try to obtain information confirming or dispelling the officer’s suspicions”
During an investigatory detention, a police officer must use the least intrusive means of detection reasonably necessary to address the officer’s reasonable suspicion. US v. Gill, 513 F. 3d 836, 845 (8th Circuit 2008).
Expansion of the scope and length of the Fourth Amendment Seizure
Limited scope: The scope of a stop is “strictly tied to and justified by the circumstances” that justified the initial stop. State v. Askerooth, 681 N.W.2d 353, 364 (Minn. 2004):
“In essence, Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution requires that each incremental intrusion during a traffic stop be tied to and justified by one of the following:
(1) the original legitimate purpose of the stop,
(2) independent probable cause, or
(3) reasonableness, as defined in Terry.
Furthermore, the basis for the intrusion must be individualized to the person toward whom the intrusion is directed.”
If a stop is initially justified on one basis, a police officer cannot expand the scope or length of the investigation without additional reasonable suspicion to support the expansion. A police officer may expand the scope of the stop only if the officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that the person is engaged in criminal activity. To expand the scope of the stop, “the officer must have a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity.” United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417-18 (1981).
Length of the investigatory detention
“An investigative detention must be temporary and last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop.” State v. Wiegand, 645 N.W.2d 125, 135 (Minn. 2002).
Police may continue to detain a person only “as long as the reasonable suspicion for the detention remains.” State v. Moffatt, 450 N.W.2d 116, 119 (Minn. 1990)
The United States Supreme Court formula for evaluation of the length of detention:
“In assessing whether a detention is too long in duration to be justified as an investigative stop, we consider it appropriate to examine whether the police diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant.” United States v. Sharpe, 470 U.S. 675 (1985).
If there was not objective reason to expand or prolong the Fourth Amendment seizure, subsequent investigative questioning, requests for consent to search, or searches are illegal and resulting evidence must be suppressed. See, State v. Fort, 660 N.W.2d 415, 419 (Minn. 2003).
An unlawfully expanded stop and prolonged detention resulting in a dog-sniff search also results in suppression of evidence obtained illegally. See, State v. Miller, 659 N.W.2d 275, 280 (Minn. Ct. App. 2003).
What does all this mean? How can you use this information? We can make practical use of it both prospectively and retrospectively – to both avoid future problems and to help solve problems already created in the past.
If a person is stopped by a police officer, in a car or otherwise, how can this law help best guide behavior?
It’s best to maintain a professional, courteous demeanor while interacting with police during a stop; while at the same time faithfully asserting your rights. How? Don’t lie and don’t volunteer information that could be used against you – both. Since you may not understand what information can be used against you until after it’s too late to take it back, when in doubt remember silence is golden.
If you sense a police officer may detaining you longer than necessary to accomplish the purpose of the stop – for example, to write you a speeding ticket – then you should ask the officer: “am I free to leave?;” “or “am I being detained?” or “may I go now?”
Why ask that question? Because the police officer will have to evaluate and justify whether he or she then has, at that moment, articulable, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity sufficient to expand the scope of the stop or the length of the detention.
Ideally the officer will then let you go, with or without your ticket.
Solving the Problem from the Past
But if the police officer continues the detention, he or she may later be forced to justify it in court, that at that moment the continued detention was justified.
If police obtained evidence after an illegal expansion of the original stop or unlawfully prolonged the length of the investigatory detention, your defense lawyer will be able to ask a judge to suppress that evidence and in the right case, dismiss the criminal charges.
Two common fact patterns
Gallagher often sees two common fact patterns that tend to follow expanded stops and prolonged detention – dog-sniff searches and consent searches.
A police officer may stop a vehicle and want to conduct a dog-sniff search, for example for illegal drugs. Unless he or she happens to have a dog in the car, it may take some time to get one there. But if there is no objective basis for prolonging the detention, any subsequent search, including a dog-sniff search, is illegal and any evidence resulting must be suppressed.
Another common ploy is to prolong an investigatory detention beyond its original purpose, without any objective reason for doing so, in order to delay and stress the person stopped in an effort to coerce the person into “consenting” to a search. It’s best to never give consent to a search. But if it’s after-the-fact, a defense lawyer like Gallagher can make a motion to suppress evidence obtained in an illegal search based on coerced “consent” resulting from an unlawfully prolonged detention.