After being released with a verbal warning for a broken brake light and driving on a suspended license, a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would have felt free to leave. Therefore, his consent for a vehicle search was valid, and the trial court erred in suppressing the resulting contraband.
During a traffic stop based on a broken brake light, an officer discovered that the driver, Appellee David Law, did not have a valid driver’s license. Law explained that he was driving home from work and trying to earn enough money to get his license back. The officer gave Law a verbal warning and returned his documents.
The officer then inquired whether he could ask Law a few more questions. Law did not respond. When the officer asked if he had any illegal drugs or guns in the car, Law said he did not. The officer asked if he could search the car, and Law nodded, opened the door, and stepped out of the car. The officer began his search and informed Law that if he wanted the search to stop at any point, all he needed to do was say so. The search revealed contraband.
The circuit court granted Law’s pretrial motion to suppress the contraband, holding that the stop became an illegal seizure when the officer prolonged it to conduct inquiries not reasonably related to the original justification for the stop. The illegal seizure tainted Law’s consent, the circuit court concluded. The Commonwealth has appealed.
Law was not illegally seized when he consented to the search of his car and, thus, his consent was valid.
Law’s – and the circuit court’s – reliance on Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015) and its application in Matthews v. Commonwealth, 65 Va. App. 334 (2015), is misplaced. In those cases, a lawful traffic stop was extended while the police conducted further investigations into possible criminal activity unrelated to the stop and for which the police lacked reasonable articulable suspicion.
Rodriguez makes clear that officers may not extend a traffic stop to conduct an unrelated investigation without reasonable suspicion. Matthews holds that consent is invalid if obtained while a subject was detained during the traffic stop that was extended beyond the time necessary to complete it. Here, by contrast, Law consented to the search during a consensual encounter that occurred after the traffic stop had been completed.
The Supreme Court of Virginia has held that a consensual interaction between a citizen and the police may begin in the immediate aftermath of a legally justified seizure, such as a traffic stop. Here, as in Dickerson v. Commonwealth, 266 Va. 14 (2003), a reasonable person would have felt free to leave after the officer returned Law’s documents and issued a warning. Indeed, the officer advised Law that the search would end whenever Law instructed. But Law never did so.
Accordingly, Law was not seized when he consented to the search of his vehicle, and his consent was not tainted.
Reversed and remanded.
Commonwealth v. Law, Record No. 0594-18-3, Sept. 4, 2018. CAV (Huff), from Franklin Cir. Ct. (Perdue). Lauren C. Campbell for Appellant; John T. Boitnott for Appellee. VLW No. 018-7-226, 9 pp.a