Videotape and the Scope of Traffic Stops Under the Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment allows the police to pull over a driver who has committed a traffic violation, and to detain that person for a reasonable period of time to investigate the traffic violation. The officer generally can ask questions unrelated to the traffic violation so long as the questioning doesn’t extend the traffic stop for more than a de minimis period of time. If the officer asks too many unrelated questions for too long, the stop exceeds the Fourth Amendment and any evidence that is found based on the extended questioning generally will be suppressed. But courts usually defer to the police in making these sorts of judgements: Judges usually conclude that added questioning didn’t extend the length of the stop too much, and so the stop was still reasonable.

Given that usual pattern, I was surprised when I first saw the blurb over at FourthAmendment.com about the Fifth Circuit’s new decision in United States v. Macias, ruling that a traffic stop was unconstitutional because the officer asked too many questions unrelated to the stop that extended the stop for too long. But then, in reading over the court’s reasoning, I was struck by something: The traffic stop was videotaped. I’m just speculating, but I would guess that the videotape gave the defendant a major advantage in litigating the case. The videotape gave the defendant the record of the details of the stop, which could show just how the officer extended the length of the stop and all of the unrelated questions that he asked.

Consider how Judge Jolly explained the facts of the case in the excerpt below. By way of background, the officer pulled over a car for a seatbelt violation. A lot of questioning followed, and the officer ultimately searched the car and found a firearm that led to charges against Macias for being a felon in possession of a gun. The defendant, Macias, argued that the officer improperly extended the duration of the traffic stop by asking lots of questions unrelated to the seatbelt violation:

Macias contends that before Trooper Barragan ran the computer checks, he engaged in detailed questioning about matters unrelated to Macias’s driver’s license, his proof of insurance, the vehicle registration, or the purpose and itinerary of his trip that unreasonably prolonged the detention without developing reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity. We agree.

Nearly eleven minutes passed from the time that Trooper Barragan stopped Macias until he ran the computer checks. During this time, Trooper Barragan questioned Macias and Zillioux extensively about the purpose and itinerary of their trip. Such questions, as discussed, are permissible because they were related in scope to Trooper Barragan’s investigation of the circumstances that caused the stop. Id. Trooper Barragan, however, asked numerous questions that were not directed to the itinerary or purpose of Macias’s trip to Victoria. Trooper Barragan asked Macias if he currently was employed, what type of work he did, whether he owned his own business, and whether he had been in “trouble” previously. Because Macias had informed Trooper Barragan that his trip to Victoria was medically-related, his job and an ambiguous question related to whether Macias had been in trouble previously had no apparent relation to the itinerary or purpose of the trip.

Further, the video recording shows that Trooper Barragan asked Zillioux a series of questions in quick succession about how long her mother and Macias had been in a relationship, whether Macias had been in trouble previously, how many children Zillioux had, who was watching her children while she was away, why her mother had not accompanied her and Macias on the trip, and for whom she, her mother, and Macias worked. Trooper Barragan admitted at the suppression hearing that these questions were unrelated to Macias’s failure to wear a seatbelt, the circumstance that justified the stop in the first place. Hence, it is clear that Trooper Barragan asked numerous unrelated questions.

We next must determine if these unrelated questions impermissibly extended the duration of the stop. Approximately two minutes passed between the time Trooper Barragan initiated the stop and initially questioned Macias and Zillioux while they sat in the truck. It was not until Macias followed Trooper Barragan to the area in front of the patrol vehicle that Trooper Barragan began to ask questions unrelated to the purpose and itinerary of the stop. Nearly eight minutes elapsed from that point until Trooper Barragan ran the computer checks. Though we recognize that during this time Trooper Barragan also asked Macias and Zillioux questions related to the purpose and itinerary of the trip, Trooper Barragan extensively questioned them both on unrelated topics. These questions therefore extended the stop by some length of time.

Again, I’m just speculating. But I would think that the details of the stop from the videotape were pretty critical in helping the defendant build the case that the officer extended the stop with his questions. Absent the videotape, the factual record would be much less certain. The officer’s recollection would be the primary evidence, and the court would probably have a picture of a relatively brief stop with a wide range of questions by a talkative cop. The videotape shows the details of each question, second-by-second. I would think it was very helpful in providing the evidence for the Court to find a Fourth Amendment violation.