Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lengthy traffic stop is not actionable under Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment requires that the police keep traffic stops as brief as necessary to effectuate the purpose of the stop. In this case, the plaintiffs argued the traffic stop was too long, in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Court of Appeals does not see it that way.

The case is Harwe v. Floyd, a summary order decided on October 17. The stop lasted a half hour. Floyd stopped Levy's car because she swerved without signaling. She admitted drinking alcohol at dinner. The Second Circuit (Raggi, Droney and Keenan [D.J.]) says that Floyd reasonably continued the stop "beyond the time necessary to issue a traffic violation in order to assuage reasonable suspicions as to driver sobriety." He necessarily questioned Levy and Harwe separately because Levy failed two sobriety tests, further lengthening the stop.

The case seems simple enough, but nothing under the Fourth Amendment is simple. Levy says the officer should have instead investigated her claim that she failed the sobriety tests because she was a stroke victim. But the Court says that Floyd's interview at the time was reasonable. The plaintiffs also argue that Floyd wasted time talking with other officers "who purported laughed and pointed at Levy." But even if this conversation was unrelated to the stop, it was relatively brief in comparison to the necessarily more time-consuming sobriety tests, preliminary questioning, the placement of Levy in the police car and filling out the citation, among other things.

You probably didn't know that a long traffic stop can violate the Fourth Amendment. This case does not quite tell us how long is too long. One case says that 17 minutes spent on unrelated inquiries is not too long. Another says that 30 minutes was reasonable based on reasonable suspicion. Add this case to the list. Under the circumstances, 30 minutes is not worth suing for.

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