What Is the Scope of Police Questioning During a Routine Traffic Stop ?

In U.S. v. Torres-Sanchez (9th Cir. 1996) 83 F.3d 1123, the officers stopped a pickup truck in Nevada for speeding, lack of license plates, and illegally tinted windows. the driver was very nervous. The occupants, who said they were going to Twin Falls, Idaho, could not produce a vehicle registration. They first said the truck belonged to the sister-in-law of one of the occupants. (Id. at p. 1125.) After the officer ran a check on the driver's license and returned to the truck, the occupants indicated the truck belonged to the sister-in-law of a different passenger, though the officer acknowledged this seeming inconsistency may have been attributable to a language barrier. (Ibid.) The officer noticed a strong smell of cologne in the car. He was suspicious the car might be stolen or involved in transporting drugs. The officer told the occupants he was not going to issue a traffic citation. He asked the passenger who most recently claimed kinship with the car owner to step back to the patrol car, then invited him to sit inside due to the cold weather, and questioned him. This passenger (Sanchez) said they were on their way to visit his aunt in Idaho, yet he did not know her address. (Ibid.) The officer returned to the pickup with further questions. He asked the other passenger (who had previously claimed kinship with the owner) for consent to search, and she said she had no objection, it was not her vehicle. The officer returned to the patrol car and asked the other passenger for consent to search. He gave consent. the search revealed illegal drugs. (Id. at p. 1126.) The Ninth Circuit affirmed denial of the defense suppression motion in Torres-Sanchez. the appellate court rejected Sanchez's arguments that the officer's questions exceeded the scope of the detention, and the detention was unreasonably prolonged. (U.S. v. Torres-Sanchez, supra, 83 F.3d at pp. 1127-1128.) The officer had a reasonable suspicion the vehicle might be stolen (though it had not been reported as such). Although Sanchez was in the patrol car for 20 minutes, he was never required to sit there, rather he sat there because of the cold weather. Torres-Sanchez indicated the defendant was free to leave after the officer made routine questions to determine if criminal activity was afoot (but it is unclear when Sanchez would have been free to leave). (Id. at p. 1128.) The appellate court said that in attempting to confirm or dispel his suspicions of illegal activity, the officer used no threats of force, unnecessary delays, exaggerated displays of authority or other coercive tactics. (Ibid.) The court concluded the consent was voluntary. (Id. at p. 1130.)