At about 1800 one evening in October 2017, Hernando Police Officer Hunter Solomon pulled a black Chevy Suburban over on northbound Interstate 55 in Hernando, Mississippi, because it had an improperly displayed license plate. Officer Solomon approached the vehicle, and defendant Corey Smith, the driver, produced his license. At Officer Solomon’s invitation, Smith got out and walked to the rear of the Suburban so Officer Solomon could show Smith why he had been pulled over. Officer Solomon asked Smith about his itinerary and passengers. Smith said he had found a good deal on a small icemaker for his Fort Worth, Texas, restaurant and was headed to Indiana to pick it up. Apparently, this icemaker was very small. Office Solomon then asked why he didn’t just have it shipped, but Smith did not have a good answer.
Smith also told Officer Solomon that his two passengers used to work for him and were helping him pick up the icemaker. When asked who they were, Smith only knew the name of one passenger. He told Officer Solomon that he had picked up the men in Jackson, Mississippi. The plan was for the men to spend the night in nearby Memphis, Tennessee, and then continue to Indiana the following day.
Officer Solomon decided to verify the itinerary with the two passengers (Carroll and Carter). Officer Solomon first got Carroll’s and Carter’s names and asked dispatch to run a background check. When asked, Carroll told Officer Solomon that he did not really know Smith and said the three men were headed to Memphis for a party and that they would return to Jackson, Mississippi the next day. He had no idea about a trip to Indiana for an icemaker. Carter’s story was similar. He said the men were headed to Memphis for a party but was unsure when they would be returning to Jackson. Carter also had no idea about any trip to Indiana.
By 6:09 p.m., both of the passengers (Carroll and Carter) identification had been verified. A minute later at 6:10 p.m., the background check returned an outstanding warrant on Carroll. Officer Solomon arrested Carroll at approximately 6:12 p.m. and placed him in Officer Davis’ patrol car. Officer Solomon then asked Smith for consent to search the Suburban. Smith became “a little defensive,” and raised his voice. Smith said he did not want his vehicle searched because he did not know what the passengers might have placed in the car. Around the same time, Officer Solomon requested a more detailed background check called a “CQH” on all three men. The CQH took about six minutes. At about 6:18 p.m. the CQH on Carter revealed that he had four prior drug arrests, including two for possession with intent to sell. Because of all this, Officer Solomon decided to use his K-9 Krash to sniff around the exterior of the vehicle. The search began at about 6:21 p.m. and less than a minute later, as Krash approached the rear door on the passenger’s side, he jerked his head back and began to sniff the car door intensely. Krash then sat down, which is how he passively alerted that he smelled narcotics. Officer Solomon determined that Krash’s alert gave him probable cause to search the Suburban for narcotics.
Officer Solomon then put Krash back into his patrol unit and began searching the car. In the front part of the car, Officer Solomon found an envelope addressed to Smith. Inside was a stack of blank metal social security cards and a handwritten list of financial companies with addresses and email addresses that appeared to be made up. The items were located sometime before 6:40 p.m. Officer Solomon then paused the search and contacted a detective to help him search the rest of the vehicle. They eventually uncovered fake IDs, authentic IDs with matching social security cards, a printer, blank check stubs, and other items. Smith and Carter were arrested for fraud and identity theft. No narcotics were found.
Smith was indicted on various charges related to fraud and identity theft. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the vehicle search, making three separate arguments that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated during the traffic stop.
Smith first argued that the stop should have ended at 6:04 p.m., because by that time Officer Solomon had seen that the vehicle had a temporary license plate and had confirmed that Smith’s driver’s license was valid. The Fifth Circuit did not agree. Smith concedes that Solomon had reasonable suspicion to pull him over. So, the initial traffic stop was valid at its inception and the first prong of the Terry inquiry is satisfied. As part of the traffic stop, Solomon could examine the driver’s and the identification of the vehicle’s occupants and check for any outstanding warrants. Officer Solomon could also ask Smith about the purpose and destination of their journey and then ask similar questions to Carroll and Carter to verify Smith’s statements. Thus, to the extent that Smith argues that any of those actions unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop beyond 6:04 p.m., his arguments fail. The computer checks on both Carroll’s and Carter’s licenses took until at least 6:09 or 6:10 p.m. Therefore, the initial traffic stop was reasonable at least until that time.
Smith next argued that, even if the stop was reasonably extended beyond 6:04 p.m., it was unreasonable to extend the stop beyond 6:12 p.m. in order to conduct a narcotics investigation. Officer Solomon admitted that, by 6:12 p.m., there was not “anything else to do regarding the investigation of the improperly displayed tag.” Therefore, any reasonable suspicion justifying an extension of the stop must have arisen before that point, or continuation of the stop would be unreasonable. The circuit court disagreed holding that Officer Solomon’s interactions with the three men provided reasonable suspicion to conduct a narcotics investigation, thus justifying an extension of the stop.
First, Officer Solomon noted the implausibility of elements of Smith’s story. Smith stated that the icemaker he was going to pick up was not a large machine. But he had no explanation for why he needed three adult men to pick up a machine of that size. Nor could he explain why it made sense to drive all the way from Fort Worth, Texas to Indiana rather than just having the machine shipped.
Second, Smith, Carter, and Carroll gave contradictory stories about their destination, the purpose of their trip, and their relationships to each other. Smith claimed the men were headed to Indiana to pick up restaurant equipment; Carroll and Carter both asserted they were headed to a party in Memphis. Smith claimed Carroll and Carter were previous employees; Carroll informed Officer Solomon that he did not really know Smith. Smith did not even know the name of one of the men. Further, the stories from Carter and Carroll did not match up with each other—one of the men stated they would be returning to Jackson the following day, while the other stated he was unsure when they would be returning. These inconsistencies were significant and they lean in favor of establishing reasonable suspicion. The court held that this is particularly true where, as here, Officer Solomon drew on his experience to make inferences from and deductions about the cumulative information available to him that ‘might well elude an untrained person.’” Officer Solomon testified that, in his experience, when drivers are dishonest after being pulled over, it usually indicates that they are hiding contraband.
Third, Smith and his companions were traveling along an interstate known for transportation of contraband. While the court agreed the Tenth Circuit in that “the probativeness of a particular defendant’s route is minimal” … the court noted that it has consistently considered travel along known drug corridors as a “relevant piece of the reasonable suspicion puzzle.” Accordingly, Smith’s travel on I-55 supports reasonable suspicion on these facts.
Lastly, they noted that by 6:10 p.m., Officer Solomon knew that one of the vehicle’s occupants had an outstanding arrest warrant for a parole violation. This fact could have contributed to Officer Solomon’s reasonable suspicion.
In sum, the record supports Officer Solomon’s reasonable suspicion, based on his experience, “that criminal activity ‘may [have been] afoot.’” The record establishes this reasonable suspicion arose by 6:12 p.m. We therefore conclude that the extension of the stop beyond that time so that Officer Solomon could conduct a narcotics investigation did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Finally, Smith argued that, even if it was reasonable for Officer Solomon to begin a narcotics investigation, that investigation was unreasonably extended by Officer Solomon’s decision to wait until 6:21 p.m. to have Krash conduct the drug sweep. Again, the court disagreed. The record did not suggest that Solomon unreasonably dragged the investigation out. Rather, during the ten-minute interval Smith challenges, the record shows that Solomon was waiting for in-depth background checks on all three men, as well as trying to secure consent to search the vehicle. The court concluded Officer Solomon did not act unreasonably by waiting until 6:21 p.m. to deploy Krash for the drug sweep.
After viewing the totality of the circumstances, the Fifth Circuit concluded that the district court’s decision to deny Smith’s motion to suppress was supported by a reasonable view of the evidence in the record.
The district court’s judgment was therefore AFFIRMED.
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