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Motion to Suppress Granted on Pretextual Traffic Stop

There is no doubt that police officers often suspect a driver of being involved in the sales of a controlled substance, having stolen property and maybe even being a member of a gang.  Police may also suspect that the person is high or drunk just based on that person’s appearance or clothing.

However, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits officers from just searching that person based on an appearance or the officer’s hunch.  There must be a proper ground for the traffic stop of the motorist.  Officers can then only search the rest of the car if reasonable to do so under the totality of the circumstances and only with a warrant, unless an exception to the warrant requirement applies.

Ernesto Ayon was driving on West Taylor Street in San Jose at about 9:00 p.m. on June 19, 2018.  Multiple law enforcement vehicles were behind him, including at least one plainclothes officer. 

As Ayon approached the intersection of North San Pedro Street, he drove in the bicycle lane approximately 50 to 70 feet before the start of the broken line where a right turn lane begins.  He then turned right on a red arrow.

After he completed the turn, he drove two or three blocks before police stopped him.  After an officer took his license and registration, he radioed back the information to a dispatcher.  About three and a half minutes into the stop, after the officers had been told Ayon’s license was valid, they ordered him out of the car.

Officer Williams asked Ayon for consent to search his car and Ayon declined.  Ayon answered, “for a moving violation, an infraction?  I mean, don’t I get a ticket and I’m on my way?”

After Ayon declined consent to a search, Officer Williams turned Ayon around and handcuffed him “for officer safety, for the way you’re acting.”  Ayon objected to being handcuffed for a traffic infraction.  Officer Williams responded again that it was for officer safety “because you’re acting very aggressive.

About eight minutes into the stop, police requested a “narco dog.” 

Police then asked Ayon if he was under the influence of drugs because he was “acting strange.” 

At twelve minutes and 45 seconds into the stop, a narco dog arrived at the scene and police then used it to search the outside of the car.  After the dog “alerted,” police searched the car for the next 48 minutes and found $6,200 hidden in a compartment under the driver’s side of the dashboard.  Another officer found a secret compartment under the rear seat, which they opened and found 1,132 grams of cocaine, 73.5 grams of methamphetamine and an additional $10,000 in currency.  The police never obtained a search warrant for the search or the arrest.

Ayon was charged with five felony counts: transportation of cocaine (Health & Safety Code § 11352(a)), transportation of methamphetamine (Health & Safety Code § 11379(a)); possession of a false compartment for storing controlled substances (Health & Safety Code § 11366.8(a)); possession for sale of cocaine (Health & Safety Code § 11351); and possession for sale of methamphetamine (Health & Safety Code § 11378).

Ayon moved to suppress the fruits of the search.  The trial court in Santa Clara County found that officers did not have probable cause to search the car based solely on the suspicion that Ayon was under the influence of a controlled substance.  However, the judge found that under the totality of the circumstances, the police did not unduly or unreasonably prolong the detention 10 or 11 minutes after the stop until the dog began sniffing the car.  The motion was therefore denied.

Ayon then appealed this, arguing that while he did commit the traffic infraction, the stop became unlawful once police extended the detention for reasons unrelated to the purpose of the stop.

The Sixth Appellate District Court agreed with Ayon, reversing the trial court.  It reasoned that because the traffic violation was the purpose of the stop, the stop “may last no longer than is necessary to effectuate that purpose.”  
Rodriguez v. U.S. (2015) 575 U.S. 348, at 354.  An officer “may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop,” but the officer may not do so “in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining the individual.”  Id., at 355.

The police did not begin to write the infraction paperwork until 16 minutes into the stop, although the investigation was complete after three and a half minutes.  Police claimed that Ayon prolonged the stop by being hostile and uncooperative, but the court noted that Ayon was acting “entirely within his rights at all times.”

Therefore, the Sixth Appellate District reversed the ruling on the motion to suppress and remanded the case to the trial court with directions to proceed with such evidence suppressed.

For more information about motion to suppress issues, please click on the following articles:
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