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United States v. Behrens

United States District Court, D. Idaho

July 9, 2019





         The Court has before it a motion to suppress filed by the defendant, Edward Eric Behrens (Dkt. 10). The Court held an evidentiary hearing on May 22, 2019. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny the motion.


         On February 2, 2019, City of Boise Police Officers Connor Burch and Andrea Matheus performed a traffic stop on a black Chevrolet Impala while on patrol near Sunrise Rim Road in Boise, Idaho. Officers Burch and Matheus decided to initiate the traffic stop because the Impala did not have a properly-affixed front license plate. Dkt. 10-1 at 2; Dkt. 12 at 2-3. After observing the Impala take several turns into parking lots and side streets indicating an effort to “avoid police presence, ” the officers initiated the stop. Dkt. 10-2 at 6. At approximately 8:21:10 p.m. Officer Burch exited his police cruiser, approached the driver's side of the vehicle, and informed Mr. Behrens that he had been pulled over because the Impala did not have a front license plate. Dkt. 10-1 at 2. Mr. Behrens responded that he had a front license plate, but that he had placed it in the lower right corner of the front windshield. Id. Officer Burch explained to Mr. Behrens that according to Idaho law the license plate must be attached to the front of the vehicle, not propped in the front windshield. Dkt. 10-2, Ex. B, Video No. 1.

         Then Officer Burch asked for Mr. Behrens' license, registration, and proof of insurance. Dkt. 10-1 at 3. Mr. Behrens acknowledged to the officer that he did not have a license because it was suspended for failure to pay child support. Id. Officer Burch proceeded to investigate this potential violation as well. Dkt. 10-2, Ex. B, Video No. 1. Because Mr. Behrens did not have a license, Officer Burch requested an alternate form of identification and Mr. Behrens gave him a copy of the citation suspending his license, his identification card, and the vehicle's registration. Dkt. 10-1 at 3. While waiting for Mr. Behrens to produce his license and registration, Officer Burch inquired into Mr. Behrens' probationary status. Id. Mr. Behrens responded that he was on probation for distributing methamphetamines, that he was compliant with the conditions of his probation, and that he had been a drug user in the past. Id. at 3-4. Officer Burch stopped questioning Mr. Behrens as soon as he was provided with the proper documentation. Id. at 4. In all, the exchange lasted about 2 minutes 39 seconds. Id. Two other officers were present during the stop: Officer Matheus, who was riding along with Officer Burch as a trainer, and Officer Nick Peterson, who arrived in a separate vehicle while Officer Burch was questioning Mr. Behrens. Id.

         After receiving Mr. Behrens' documentation at 8:24:02 p.m., Officer Burch returned to his cruiser to run a check on Mr. Behrens' lack of active license. At the same time, Officer Matheus requested that Officer Peterson stay by the vehicle. Dkt. 10-1 at 4. Officer Peterson engaged in small talk with Mr. Behrens while waiting by his car. Dkt. 10-2, Ex. B, Video Nos. 1 & 2. Several minutes passed, and at approximately 8:30 p.m. Officer Peterson requested that Mr. Behrens exit the vehicle. Id. at 5. When Mr. Behrens asked why, Officer Peterson responded that the police were bringing a drug dog by the car, and he wanted Mr. Behrens to get out so that he “doesn't get bit.” Id. The police walked Mr. Behrens away from his Impala at approximately 8:31 p.m., and Officer Peterson waited with him for approximately two minutes. Dkt. 10-2, Ex. B, Video Nos. 1-3. Officer Matheus then inquired whether Mr. Behrens had any weapons and then removed a knife from Mr. Behrens' front jacket pocket. Id.

         At approximately 8:31:41 p.m. Officer Matthew Lane, who had arrived in the interim, circled the vehicle with a drug dog for approximately one minute, until 8:32:44 p.m. Dkt. 10-2, Ex. B, Video No. 3. The dog alerted next to the driver's side door at approximately 8:32:14 p.m. Id. Meanwhile, the other officers kept Mr. Behrens away from his vehicle. Id. Mr. Behrens asked Officer Peterson, “Can I get back in my car now?” Dkt. 10, Ex. B, Video No. 5. Officer Peterson responded, “No. Maybe in just a few minutes.” Id.

         During the stop for an improperly affixed license plate, Officer Burch learned that Mr. Behrens was driving with a suspended license. See Dkt. 10-2, Ex. B, Video No. 1. After receiving Mr. Behrens' proof of identification and registration, Officer Burch returned to his police cruiser to investigate relevant facts behind Mr. Behrens' suspended license and prepare the citation. Id. Officer Burch arrived at his car at 8:24:20 p.m. and the video shows him preparing the citation until approximately 8:35 p.m. Id. The police call records confirm that Officer Burch was investigating outstanding warrants and confirming Mr. Behrens' registration, insurance, and lack of active license during that time. Dkt. 10-2 at 15-23. Nothing on the video shows Officer Burch was in any way involved with or delayed by the K-9 sniff. Dkt. 10-2, Ex. B at Video Nos. 1-3. Officer Burch confirmed as much at the May 22, 2019 hearing. The Court found Officer Burch's testimony during the May 22, 2019 hearing credible, and that it confirmed the information available on the body camera footage and in the police records.


         “The Fourth Amendment prohibits ‘unreasonable searches and seizures' by the Government, and its protections extend to brief investigatory stops of persons or vehicles that fall short of traditional arrest.” United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002). Thus, the “[t]emporary detention of individuals during the stop of an automobile by the police, even if only for a brief period and for a limited purpose, constitutes a ‘seizure' of ‘persons' within the meaning of [the Fourth Amendment].” Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996).

         “[T]here is ‘no ready test for determining reasonableness other than by balancing the need to search (or seize) against the invasion which the search (or seizure) entails.'” Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21 (1968) (quoting Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523, 536-37 (1967)). Generally, “searches and seizures conducted outside the judicial process, without prior approval by judge or magistrate, are per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment-subject only to a few specifically established and well delineated exceptions.” Minnesota v. Dickerson, 508 U.S. 366, 372 (1993). “[A] search conducted pursuant to a valid consent is constitutionally permissible.” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 222 (1973). Further, “[a] seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation.” Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1614 (2015).

         To determine whether the length of a particular stop is reasonable, courts must look to the purpose of the stop. Id. (“the tolerable duration of police inquiries ... is determined by the seizure's mission ...”). A stop becomes unlawful when it is prolonged “beyond the time reasonably required” to complete the tasks necessary to effectuate the mission of the stop. Id. at 1614-15. Thus, an officer's authority to detain an individual ends when those tasks are, or reasonably should be, completed. Id. at 1614.

         When an officer prolongs a stop to conduct an unrelated inquiry, he may do so only on the basis of “specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.” Terry, 392 U.S. at 21; see also Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 1615 (finding that an officer may not prolong an otherwise lawful traffic stop to conduct unrelated checks “absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.”). An officer may, however, take “certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his mission safely, ” where the officer's safety interest “stems from the mission of the stop itself.” Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 1616.


         Mr. Behrens argues that evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop and subsequent search should be suppressed on the following grounds: (1) the initial stop was based on the officer's mistake of law, and is therefore unreasonable under Article 1, § 17 of the Idaho Constitution; (2) the traffic stop was impermissibly abandoned, expanded, and delayed without independent reasonable suspicion of criminal activity; and (3) no exception to the warrant requirement justifies the violation to Mr. Behrens' rights under the U.S. and Idaho Constitutions. The Government responds that the police had reasonable grounds to stop Mr. Behrens in the first place, that the stop was not extended beyond its ...

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