Police Interrogation During Traffic Stops: More Questions Than Answers

31 The Champion 34-39 (No. 9, November 2007)

Tracey Maclin

Abstract

This short paper focuses on whether the Fourth Amendment permits police, during a routine traffic stop, to arbitrarily question motorists about subjects unrelated to the purpose of the traffic stop. The paper was prompted by a recent Ninth Circuit ruling, United States v. Mendez, 476 F.3d 1077 (9th Cir. 2007), which was authored by Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

Prior to Mendez, the Ninth Circuit had taken the position that the Fourth Amendment barred police from questioning motorists about subjects unrelated to the purpose of a traffic stop, unless there was independent suspicion for such questioning. This rule was based on the principle that the Fourth Amendment limits the scope of a traffic stop in the same way that the amendment, as announced in Terry v. Ohio, restricts police activity during an investigative detention to actions reasonably related to the justification for the detention.

In Mendez, however, Judge Reinhardt reversed circuit precedent and ruled that during routine traffic stops, police are free to questions motorists about any subject, provided such questioning does not prolong the length of the traffic stop. Judge Reinhardt’s opinion was based on his reading of two Supreme Court cases: Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005) and Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93 (2005). Judge Michael McConnell has adopted the same rule for the Tenth Circuit in United States v. Stewart, 473 F. 3d 1265 (10th Cir. 2007).

The article explains how Judge Reinhardt and Judge McConnell have misread Caballes and Mena. Their rulings have not only given police the authority to arbitrarily question motorists about criminal behavior, but also directly contradict the Fourth Amendment command that an investigative intrusion must be strictly tied and justified by the circumstances which render its initiation permissible. The judges’ interpretation, if not corrected, will undermine Fourth Amendment protections that courts across the nation have uniformly recognized since Terry v. Ohio.

 

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Tracey Maclin Contact Information

tmaclin@bu.edu
Boston University School of Law
765 Commonwealth Ave
Boston, MA 02215
USA
(617) 353-04688

Presentation and Publication Information:
Maclin, Tracey, "Police Interrogations During Traffic Stops: More Questions Than Answers," 31 The Champion 34-39 (No. 9, November 2007). The Champion is a publication of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawers. This article is reproduced here and on SSRN with the permission of the publisher.

Social Science Research Network Electronic Paper Collection:

http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract_id=1031474


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