An important decision recently reminded Arizonans that police cannot drag out a traffic stop for a long time without a good legal reason to keep people from moving on.
It was also a reminder that police sometimes give orders that will not stand up legally under closer study, and that arrests and charges in such cases may be discarded as unlawful.
The decision came from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Arizona’s last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A lawful stop, at first, with reason to suspect more
The officer stopped a car, he said, because its speed was over the limit by 11 mph.
He found two men in the front seats and two women in the back seats. He smelled alcohol. It was also late at night and he thought the women looked younger than 18, with the nearby Native American reservation having a curfew for minors under 18.
The officer asked to see everyone’s IDs. The speeding driver and the young-looking women provided their IDs (the women proved to be adults).
Passenger knows his rights and is suspected of nothing
But the man in the passenger seat refused to produce his ID, explaining that legally he did not have to. He was not driving a speeding car, and nobody suspected him of breaking curfew because he looked (and was) over the curfew age of 18 and the drinking age of 21.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promises “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects.” It allows searches that are not “unreasonable” or when a judge agrees approves a search in advance.
On the grounds that the passenger would not be “compliant,” the officer called for backup, causing a long delay. Ultimately, the passenger turned out to have six bullets and a felony record, which is an illegal combination.
Long traffic stop becomes unlawfully holding a citizen
The Court of Appeals found that asking the passenger for ID was lawful, but so was refusing to comply. After that point, the delay acted as unlawfully detaining a man and further actions to investigate without probable cause were unlawful.
Arizona law says a person cannot refuse to give their name to an officer if they have been “lawfully detained.” But the officer detained the passenger unlawfully.
Arizona law also says a person must follow a “lawful order or direction” from a traffic officer. But because the detainment was unlawful, so were the orders.
Although debating the fine points of the law late at night by the side of the road is very unlikely to go well, Arizonans should know legal counsel can help ensure that the courts fulling consider your rights.