Voluntary Consent to Search Car: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v Lopez

On the afternoon of July 13, 1989, Lopez was driving a Ryder rental truck towing a Volkswagen automobile on Interstate 90 in Erie County. His wife, Yvonne, and his four year old child were passengers. Corporal Robert Martin of the Pennsylvania State Police noticed the tow chains between the Ryder truck and the Volkswagen were not crossed as required by § 4905(d) of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code, and signaled Lopez to pull over.

After the stop, upon request, Lopez produced his driver’s license, vehicle registration and the rental agreement for the truck, which revealed that the truck had been rented in Carlsbad, New Mexico with a destination of Glen Falls, New York. Upon concluding that the papers were in order, Corporal Martin did not return them to Lopez but, instead asked Lopez to exit the vehicle and walk to its rear.

After showing Lopez the towing violation, Corporal Martin proceeded to question Lopez regarding the origin, destination, purpose, and duration of his trip from New Mexico. While retaining the license and rental agreement, Corporal Martin asked Lopez “Would you mind letting me look into the back of the truck?” Lopez did not object, opened the lock and pulled up the door. Corporal Martin observed that the truck was empty except for several blankets, some children’s toys and two suitcases. He then asked Lopez about the ownership and destination of the Volkswagen automobile; Lopez responded that he was delivering it to his brother.

Corporal Martin then told Lopez to sit in the Ryder truck while he radioed for assistance. When Trooper William Wagner, also of the Pennsylvania State Police, arrived, Corporal Martin asked Lopez if he had any drugs, weapons or alcohol in the vehicles, to which Lopez responded “no.” Nonetheless, Corporal Martin asked Lopez if he would “consider signing a voluntary consent form to let them search the vehicles?” Lopez agreed and signed a consent form which was provided to him by Trooper Wagner.

The search revealed a cache, containing approximately seventy-six pounds of marijuana, in a compartment located behind the back seat of the Volkswagen. Lopez was then patted down, handcuffed and placed inside a patrol vehicle where he was given his Miranda warnings.

In order for a stop to be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the police must have articulable and reasonable grounds to suspect, or probable cause to believe, that criminal activity may be afoot. This standard is met “if the police officer’s reasonable and articulable belief that criminal activity was afoot [is] linked with his observation of suspicious or irregular behavior on behalf of the particular defendant stopped.”

First, it is uncontested that Corporal Martin stopped Lopez because he had articulable and reasonable grounds to suspect, or probable cause to believe, that a provision of the Vehicle Code was being violated. Such a stop was clearly permissible.

Lopez challenges the propriety of the subsequent detention and investigation by Corporal Martin. He argues that because Corporal Martin had no reasonable grounds to suspect him of drug related activity, the continued detention and questioning about the destination, and purpose of renting the Ryder truck, was unreasonable.

The court held that when conducting a routine traffic stop, an officer may request a driver’s license and vehicle registration, run a computer check and issue a citation.Upon producing a valid driver’s license and registration, the driver must be allowed to proceed on his way, without being subject to further delay by police for additional questioning. In order to justify detaining the driver for further questioning, the officer must have “reasonable suspicion ‘of illegal transactions in drugs or of any other serious crime.’ ”

Corporal Martin reviewed Lopez’s license, registration and rental papers and concluded that they were in order. No objective circumstances suggested that Lopez or his wife had committed any crime more serious than the failure to cross the tow chains. Therefore, after Corporal Martin explained the violation, his authority was limited by both state and federal law, to issuing a citation or warning.

Without returning the documents, however, based on his “policeman’s intuition,” Corporal Martin questioned Lopez regarding the origin, destination, purpose and duration for traveling and renting the Ryder truck. In addition, Corporal Martin asked Lopez whether he could look inside the truck and whether he was transporting any drugs, alcohol or weapons. Corporal Martin admitted at the preliminary hearing that this series of questions were unrelated to the purpose of the initial stop. Absent reasonable grounds to suspect an illegal transaction in drugs or other serious crime, the officer had no legitimate reason for detaining Lopez or for pursuing any further investigation of him, hence, the detention ceased to be lawful at this point. Thus, in accord with Guzman, we find that Corporal Martin’s continued detention and investigation of Lopez constituted an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment; consequently, the evidence seized should have been suppressed.

Therefore, the Court concluded that the evidence which was seized as a result of a violation of the Fourth Amendment was the fruit of an illegality and, therefore, should be suppressed and not permitted to be used at the time of trial.

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