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Criminal Background Check Did Not Transform Traffic Stop Into Unlawful Arrest
In October 2016, a masked man wearing dark clothing, sunglasses, and gloves robbed a bank in Henderson, Nevada. He brandished a black handgun with brown grips and stole almost $70,000 before escaping in a black midsized SUV that looked like the aptly-named Ford Escape.
In December 2016, police received a call that a vehicle was stopped in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Las Vegas. Upon arrival at approximately 6:19 a.m., they found Anthony Hylton non-responsive at the wheel of the vehicle. Hylton got out of the car as the officers instructed; he told the officers that his license and registration were in the backseat. One officer could not locate the license and registration but did find, in plain sight, a closed gun case with a gun inside. The gun was a black handgun with brown grips, like the one used in the October 2016 robbery. Meanwhile, another officer conducted field sobriety tests, and Hylton failed two out of three. Following standard policy, the officers requested a drug recognition expert (DRE). While waiting for the DRE, they asked Hylton his name and date of birth. The officers used this information to perform a check on his driver’s license, registration, insurance, open warrants, and criminal history. The criminal history check showed Hylton was a felon. Thirty minutes later, at 6:49 a.m., the officers arrested Hylton for being a felon in possession of a firearm and canceled the call for the DRE, who was still on his way to the scene. After being charged and having his firearm seized, Hylton was released.
In January 2017, a second robbery occurred with seemingly the same robber, but this time a silver handgun was used. The suspect again escaped in a vehicle that looked like a Ford Escape. Officers then conducted a search of all Ford Escapes registered to addresses whose occupants matched the suspect’s description. This led officers to Hylton, who was arrested for bank robbery.
Hylton moved to suppress the evidence resulting from the traffic stop, including the seized firearm. Hylton argued that the officers so prolonged his stop that it became an unlawful arrest, and therefore the seized firearm could not be used against him. The district court denied the motion, holding that the officers did not unreasonably prolong the traffic stop.
A routine traffic stop is permissible so long as officers do not unreasonably prolong the stop beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket for the violations. If a traffic stop is unreasonably prolonged, then it can become an unlawful arrest.
Here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reasoned that because traffic stops can be dangerous for officers, the government has a strong interest in protecting officers’ safety during stops. Officers have a compelling safety interest to know whether they are stopping a felon. Since a criminal history check “stems from the mission of the stop itself,” it is a “negligibly burdensome precaution” necessary “to complete [the stop] safely.”
The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court, and the officers who stopped Hylton did not need independent reasonable suspicion to perform the criminal history check.
USA v. Anthony Hylton, Jr., 30 F.4th 842 (9th Cir. 2022).
The Court recognized that peace officers perform a highly dangerous job and are entitled to use reasonable safety procedures like a criminal history check during some traffic stops. Pop quiz – What make of vehicle is the quintessential get-away car?