Traffic stops are a common kind of encounter between a police officer and a citizen. While the legality of the initial stop must be considered, there have been a number of Tennessee cases in recent years dealing with the permissible scope of an investigation following a lawful stop. Even after a lawful stop, a citizen may not be detained unreasonably. In the recent Court of Criminal Appeals case of State v. Bourrage, M2014-01194-VVA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 5-26-2015), the Court noted that requests for driver's licenses and registration documents, as well as "inquiries concerning travel plans and vehicle ownership, computer checks, and the issuance of citations are investigative methods or activities consistent with the lawful scope of any traffic stop."
In the Bourrage case, the defendant pled guilty to simple possession of marijuana based on evidence discovered as a result of a traffic stop. The defendant reserved for appeal the certified question of whether the police officer exceeded the scope of the initial lawful stop.
The defendant was initially stopped for having no license plate. After the stop, the officer discovered there was actually a license plate which had been "folded down." After moving the plate to the correct position, the officer had a conversation with the defendant and asked for his license to run a license check. During this initial conversation, they also discussed where the defendant was going, whether a particular football team had won, and the defendant's trouble finding his registration. When the officer returned to hand back the defendant's license, he smelled marijuana and asked for consent to search the vehicle.
The focus of the the defendant's argument on appeal was that the police officer, who had only stopped the defendant for not having a license plate, should have either just cited him or let him go, after correcting the position of the license plate. The defendant argued the reason for the initial stop did not justify the officer prolonging the stop to ask questions unrelated to the license plate issue.
The trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the State that the duration of the stop and the questioning was reasonable. Some of the conversation occurred while the defendant was looking for his vehicle registration. Furthermore, basic checks on license and registration, and inquiries about vehicle ownership and travel plans, are a reasonable part of any traffic stop and within the lawful scope of any otherwise lawful stop.
For more information on whether a traffic stop has exceeded its scope, contact Hindman & Associates.