Should a firearm found during an inventory search of an automobile be suppressed as a result of a prolonged a traffic stop?

The Second Circuit had to line up the Fourth Amendment dominoes to answer this question in United States v. Wallace decided on September 3, 2019.  Officers in New York City stopped a car for a defective brake light. During the traffic stop the officers observed indications that the car was potentially stolen and the driver (Wallace) did not have registration for the vehicle. When officers discovered that the Federally mandated VIN sticker was not on the door frame, Wallace was arrested under New York law. After his arrest, Wallace’s car was impounded and inventoried by the officers.  When looking under the hood, the officers found a firearm in a bag behind a headlight. Wallace was then charged for being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Wallace argued the firearm should be excluded as a result as a violation of the rule of law developed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015).  Under the Rodriguez rule, a traffic stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures unless a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is developed during the traffic stop that converts the traffic stop into a Terry stop. The Second Circuit held that under the facts in this case, the extension of the stop was supported by reasonable suspicion that was developed during the traffic stop and therefore the subsequent arrest and inventory were not tainted by a Rodriguez violation.

LEO Takeaway: It seems like every week we have another “traffic stop turned into Terry stop” case where the court has to develop a timeline to determine if the reasonable suspicion was developed without an unlawful extension of a traffic stop.  It is imperative that patrol officers be familiar with the Rodriguez rule in order to prevent evidence being excluded when a traffic stop turns into something else.

To read or download the full decision CLICK HERE.