When Does the Length of a Traffic Stop Become Excessive?

Written by Gregory Monte.

Don’t Ever Do This

Would you voluntarily agree to sit in a police officer’s car if he stopped you for speeding?

If this sounds like a crazy question, you may not be familiar with the procedure of the Utah Highway Patrol.  In State v. Miller, 2019 UT App 18 – Utah: Court of Appeals 2019, a trooper …

“… testified that he asks drivers to come back to his patrol vehicle in 90% of traffic stops because he sometimes needs to gather additional information from drivers.”

While the motorist is not “technically” required to do this – the officer merely “asks” – I wonder how many drivers would feel comfortable refusing to do so.  In this particular case, the appellant (schmuck) actually agreed to the officer’s request and went ahead and sat in the front passenger seat of the police car.

In all, the stop took approximately 11-12 minutes and the court decided that it was not unreasonable:

“He argues that the traffic stop was impermissibly prolonged without reasonable suspicion when the officer conducting the traffic stop asked him to walk back to the patrol car, engaged him in unrelated questioning before and during the citation process, and waited to run a records check until later in the stop. Because none of these actions unconstitutionally extended the stop, we affirm.”


Part One – How Long is Too Long?

So how long is too long when it comes to a typical traffic stop?

A Supreme Court Decision in 2015 (Rodriguez v. US, 135 S. Ct. 1609) kind of gives some insight here:

“This case presents the question whether the Fourth Amendment tolerates a dog sniff conducted after completion of a traffic stop. We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures. A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, “become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of issuing a ticket for the violation.”

With this in mind, consider the events described in Rodriguez cited above (notice also that this individual did not agree to sit in the front seat of the squad car):

“[Officer] Struble approached the Mountaineer on the passenger’s side. After Rodriguez identified himself, Struble asked him why he had driven onto the shoulder. Rodriguez replied that he had swerved to avoid a pothole. Struble then gathered Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, and asked Rodriguez to accompany him to the patrol car. Rodriguez asked if he was required to do so, and Struble answered that he was not. Rodriguez decided to wait in his own vehicle.”

When the officer returned to the car, he gave Rodriquez back his license, registration, proof of insurance and warning.  At this moment the “tasks tied to the traffic infraction” were completed.


Part Two – How Long is Too Long?

But what does “reasonably required” mean as far as a time limit?

Unfortunately, there is no exact time limit specified.  In the Miller case the elapsed time was 10-11 minutes while in Rodriguez it was around 20 minutes.

Clearly, the officer is allowed to complete certain “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop:”

  • Check the driver license
  • Inspect the registration
  • Verify insurance
  • Determine if there are outstanding warrants

But depending on the circumstance, the time needed to complete these tasks could vary.  For example, the computer system might be down at a given point or backed up if many officers are accessing it at the same time.  This is probably why in State v. Dunbar, 2017, the court made the following not-so-helpful comments with regard to the proper amount of time:

“If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of ‘time reasonably required to complete [the stop’s] mission’”


Extending the Stop is Illegal

Again, there is that “reasonably required” caveat.

Although a set time limit is not knowable in advance, what is clear is that a police officer is not allowed to extend the stop for reasons unrelated to the initial purpose.  This means that if you were pulled over for speeding (unless there is a reasonable suspicion that something else is afoot), the officer must only spend time investigating the offense of speeding.  He is not legally permitted to waste more time or harass you just because you may give him an attitude or because he doesn’t like you.


Related Quotes

“An officer… may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop. But… he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.”

US v. Lawrence, 2016 

“[T] he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s `mission’—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns. “

US v. Gomez, 2016 

Police “may not extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, in order to conduct a dog sniff.”

State v. MYMERN, 2018 

“Because addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, it may “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate that purpose.”

US v. Sanchez, 2019 

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