Friday, July 24, 2015

United States v. Gunnell

Opinion handed down January 12, 2015
In 2011, James Gunnell was arrested and eventually convicted of possessing fifty grams or more of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(A), and 851.[1]  Gunnell moved to suppress evidence of approximately one pound of methamphetamine that was seized during a traffic stop, but the district court denied his motion.[2] 

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding: (1) the initial traffic stop was supported by sufficient proximate cause and was not unlawfully pretextual;[3]  (2) the officers did not unlawfully prolong the traffic stop while waiting for the drug sniff dog to arrive;[4]  and (3) the drug sniff dog’s alert was sufficient to support a finding of probable cause to search Gunnell’s motorcycle for contraband.[5]

I.  Facts and Holding

In August of 2011, the DEA suspected that Gunnell was a major dealer of methamphetamine.[6]  Having secured information of Gunnell’s whereabouts, the DEA contacted the Springfield Police Department and informed them of Gunnell’s location.[7]  Springfield Police were instructed to “develop probable cause” to initiate a stop traffic stop of Gunnell, in order to search his motorcycle for drugs.[8]

Moments after being spotted exiting a building, Gunnell provided the officers the probable cause they needed by riding his motorcycle ten miles-per-hour over the posted speed limit.[9]  Gunnell was pulled over, and the officers ran Gunnell’s information through the driver license system.[10]  After discovering Gunnell did not have a motorcycle endorsement on his license, the officer asked Gunnell for permission to search his person and motorcycle; Gunnell did not consent.[11]

Meanwhile, as Gunnell’s information was being run through the system, another officer arrived with a drug sniff dog.[12]  The dog alerted near the seat compartment of the motorcycle and the officers initiated search.[13]  The officers discovered approximately one pound of methamphetamine, along with other drug paraphernalia.[14]  Gunnell was immediately arrested and charged with violating federal drug possession statutes.[15] 

Gunnell pled guilty, subject to the ruling on a motion to suppress all evidence obtained during the traffic stop.[16]  The district court denied Gunnell’s motion, determining that the seized evidence was lawfully obtained.[17]  On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed, holding: (1) the initial traffic stop was supported by sufficient proximate cause and was not unlawfully pretextual;[18]  (2) the officers did not unlawfully prolong the traffic stop while waiting for the drug sniff dog to arrive;[19]  and (3) the drug sniff dog’s alert was sufficient to support a finding of probable cause to search Gunnell’s motorcycle for contraband.[20]

II.  Legal Background

A. The Initial Traffic Stop

The Fourth Amendment mandates that all warrantless seizures must be reasonable.[21]  “As a general matter, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.”[22]  Subjective intentions of law enforcement officials have no part in the analysis,[23] for “once an officer has probable cause, the stop is objectionably reasonable and any ulterior motivation on the officer’s part is irrelevant.”[24]

B. The Detention

“If a defendant is detained incident to a traffic stop . . . [he] may be detained while the officer completes a number of routine but somewhat time-consuming tasks related to the traffic violation.”[25]  The officer need not formulate additional reasonable suspicion to continue the detention until the purpose of the traffic stop has been completed.[26]  Only after the routine tasks associated with the traffic stop are complete does the detention become unreasonable without further reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.[27]

C. The Dog Sniff

A drug dog’s alert is generally sufficient for probable cause when the dog has been tested and certified for reliability in a controlled setting by a bona fide organization.[28]  “A sniff is up to snuff” when it “would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime.”[29]

III.  Instant Decision

The Eighth Circuit quickly determined that the initial traffic stop was lawful.  Despite the instructions from the DEA and the officer’s desire to bust Gunnell for drugs, Gunnell’s speeding violation provided law enforcement an objectively reasonable purpose for the initial traffic stop.[30]  Gunnell’s excessive speed “provided probable cause to support the stop, and any ulterior motive on [the officer’s] part is irrelevant.”[31]

Additionally, the Eighth Circuit ruled that the officer did not detain Gunnell for an unreasonable amount of time while waiting for the drug dog to arrive.[32]  It took approximately five minutes for the drug dog to arrive after the initial traffic stop, which is well within an acceptable time frame for a typical traffic stop.[33]  The court noted that, had it taken much longer for the drug dog to arrive, a detention until the dog’s arrival might have constituted an unreasonable seizure.[34]  However, the undisputed facts of this case did not present such a scenario.[35]

Finally, the court briefly discussed that the drug dog’s passing performance in a controlled environment permitted its alert to provide the officers sufficient probable cause to search Gunnell’s vehicle.[36]  Gunnell did not contest the dog’s performance in the controlled setting, nor did he present any other reason why the dog might have given a false alert.[37]  Having denied all points on appeal, the court affirmed the ruling of the district court; none of the evidence was suppressed.[38]

IV.  Comment

This case emphasized how little the subjective intentions of law enforcement matter when there exists an objectively reasonable purpose for a detention.  Had it taken a little bit longer for the drug dog to arrive, or had Gunnell’s traffic violation been a more trivial offense, this case could have been more controversial.  The court appeared to bolster the longstanding rule that as long as an officer’s conduct is objectively reasonable and lawful, the subjective intent of the officer is irrelevant.
                                                                                        - Joe Krispin

[1] United States v. Gunnell, 775 F.3d 1079, 1081 (8th Cir. 2015).
[2] Id. at 1082.
[3] Id. at 1083.
[4] Id. at 1084.
[5] Id. at 1085.
[6] Id. at 1081.
[7] Id.
[8] Id. at 1082.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.  Gunnell did not have his physical license on him, so the officers ran information verbally provided by Gunnell.  Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at 1083.
[19] Id. at 1084.
[20] Id. at 1085.
[21] U.S. Const. amend. IV.
[22] Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 810 (1996).
[23] Id. at 813.
[24] United States. v. Frashner, 632 F.3d 450, 453 (8th Cir. 2011).
[25] United States. v. Ovando-Garzo, 752 F.3d 1161, 1163 (8th Cir. 2014).
[26] Id.
[27] Id. at 1164.
[28] Florida v. Harris, 133 S. Ct. 1050, 1057 (2013).
[29] Id. at 1058.
[30] United States. v. Gunnell, 775 F.3d 1079, 1083 (8th Cir. 2015).
[31] Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).
[32] Id. at 1084.
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id. at 1085.
[37] Id.
[38] Id.