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State v. Schooler

Supreme Court of Kansas

June 22, 2018

State of Kansas, Appellant,
Shaun Lee Schooler, Appellee.


         1. A routine traffic stop is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

         2. Traffic stops cannot be measurably extended beyond the time necessary to process the infraction that prompted the stop unless there is a reasonable suspicion of or probable cause to believe there is other criminal activity, or consent.

         3. Beyond simply determining whether to issue a citation, a law enforcement officer's mission in a traffic stop typically includes ordinary inquiries for: (i) checking the driver's license; (ii) determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver; and (iii) inspecting the automobile's registration and proof of insurance. The officer may also take negligibly burdensome precautions for officer safety. Information gathering must be limited to the infraction prompting the stop or those matters directly related to traffic code enforcement, i.e., ensuring vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.

         4. While a driver is being detained for a routine traffic stop, a law enforcement officer may not conduct questioning unrelated to the officer's mission if it measurably extends the stop-absent probable cause or the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.

         5. A law enforcement officer need not disregard information that may lead the officer to suspect other criminal activity during a traffic stop. When the detainee's responses and circumstances lead to suspicions unrelated to the traffic offense, an officer may broaden the inquiry and satisfy those suspicions.

         6. Travel plan questioning is not always within a traffic stop's scope. The circumstances will dictate that. To fall within the stop's scope, such questions must have a close connection to the initial infraction under investigation or to roadway safety, i.e., ensuring vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly. Otherwise, they may be pursued by law enforcement only at the same time as the officer is completing the tasks appropriate for processing the initial infraction. Questioning outside the stop's scope may not measurably extend the stop's duration absent reasonable suspicion or probable cause to independently support the additional detention.

         7. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause. What is reasonable depends on the totality of the circumstances in the view of a trained law enforcement officer. In determining whether reasonable suspicion exists, the court must judge the officer's actions in light of common sense and ordinary human experience.

         8. The totality of the circumstances standard does not envision a reviewing court pigeonholing each factor as to innocent or suspicious appearances, but instead requires a determination whether all the circumstances justify the detention. The relevant inquiry is not whether particular conduct is innocent or guilty, but whether a sufficient degree of suspicion attaches to particular types of noncriminal acts. The totality of the circumstances standard prohibits a divide-and-conquer analysis under which factors that are readily susceptible to an innocent explanation are entitled to no weight.

          Review of the judgment of the Court of Appeals in an unpublished opinion filed May 19, 2017.

          Appeal from Geary District Court; Steven L. Hornbaker, judge. Judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming the district court is reversed. Judgment of the district court is reversed and the case remanded.

          Tony R. Cruz, assistant county attorney, argued the cause, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, was on the briefs for appellant.

          Michael P. Whalen, of Law Office of Michael P. Whalen, of Wichita, argued the cause and was on the brief for appellee.


          BILES, J.

         The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that traffic stops not be measurably extended beyond the time necessary to process the infraction prompting the stop-unless there is consent, or a reasonable suspicion of or probable cause to believe there is other criminal activity. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1615, 191 L.Ed.2d 492 (2015). In the current case, the State seeks interlocutory review of a district court decision suppressing from evidence 38 pounds of marijuana seized after a traffic stop along I-70. The court found the stop was impermissibly extended. A Court of Appeals panel affirmed. State v. Schooler, No. 116, 636, 2017 WL 2212102, at *6 (Kan. App. 2017) (unpublished opinion). We granted review and now reverse.

         The issue is whether the lower courts correctly concluded the stop was unconstitutionally extended. The analysis is complicated by the timing and other details attendant to the stop, including the deputy's questions and the driver's responses. See State v. Jimenez, (No. 116, 250 this date decided), slip op. at 19 (noting circumstances dictate how a court views an officer's progressive questioning during a traffic stop). As opposed to the lower courts, we determine that (1) discrepancies between the driver's statements and the vehicle-related documents justified the deputy's questioning; (2) the questioning occurred simultaneously with the deputy's appropriate steps in processing the traffic stop; and (3) the circumstances provided reasonable suspicion to extend the detention for a drug dog sniff. We remand the case to the district court for further proceedings.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         The facts are undisputed and supported by an audio/video recording. We must detail what happened because "[a]ssessing whether an officer unreasonably prolonged a stop involves 'highly fact-specific inquiries.'" United States v. Hill, 849 F.3d 195, 201 (4th Cir. 2017); see also Jimenez, slip op. at 20 (Caselaw "requires careful case-by-case evaluation to determine how the officer conducted or ordered the activities associated with the traffic stop.").

         In February 2016, Shaun Schooler was driving a rented 2016 Dodge pickup eastbound on I-70 when Geary County Sheriff's Deputy Justin Stopper noticed snow obstructing the license tag's lower half. The deputy initiated a traffic stop. He approached Schooler's vehicle from the passenger side, explained the reason for the stop, and asked for his driver's license and vehicle registration, which in this instance was a rental agreement.

         As Schooler complied, the deputy immediately asked where he was coming from. He responded Denver, Colorado, heading to Kansas City to fly back home to California. He told Stopper he had flown in to Kansas City before traveling to Denver. The rental agreement, however, stated the vehicle was rented in California a few days earlier and was due back at the same location a couple of days after the stop. The deputy later testified the rental location and dates were peculiar to him because of Schooler's explanations about his travel itinerary. Stopper asked why Schooler was in Denver. He said he was skiing with friends and had dropped off a 16-foot trailer. Stopper asked why he did not fly out of Denver. Schooler explained "it was just cheaper to do it that way." Stopper asked Schooler to confirm he flew into Kansas City, and Schooler volunteered: "The car rental is from San Diego. I totally know that it is. It's just how they did it with the trailer and stuff, sir." When Stopper suggested "normally" a "different rental place" is not listed on a rental agreement, Schooler said "it's not all me." Schooler offered to produce airline tickets and began searching for them inside the vehicle.

         While Schooler looked for his tickets, Stopper asked what kind of trailer he dropped off and expressed disbelief the truck could accommodate that trailer type. Stopper asked where he picked up the trailer. Schooler said in Kansas City from a friend. Stopper asked how that "work[ed] out[.]" While Schooler continued to search for his airline tickets, Stopper commented on a "giant duffel bag" the officer saw in the truck's back seat.

         Schooler could not locate his airline tickets and believed they were in another backpack, which he asked to get from the back seat. Because it was cold, Stopper suggested they sit in his patrol vehicle. Schooler agreed. The deputy later testified he suspected criminal activity as he left the truck's passenger side to return to his own vehicle. He said his suspicions at this point were based on detecting the odor of air fresheners from the rental vehicle; observing multiple cell phones, the large duffle bag, other items, and debris in the passenger compartment; and noting the peculiarities with Schooler's explanations about his travels and the vehicle rental arrangement. The deputy texted for a drug dog. At this point, about three minutes had passed from the stop.

         Inside the patrol car, the deputy continued questioning while reviewing Schooler's driver's license and rental documents and entering information into his vehicle's mobile data terminal. He asked when Schooler got to Kansas City. He responded "they rented it" on Friday, he "got into Kansas City on Saturday, [and] skied Sunday, Monday." He reiterated, "[T]hey did rent [the vehicle] out of San Diego, " and he "just picked it up in Kansas City." He explained he had a truck stolen and "Geico Insurance rented it, in [his] name, and [he] picked it up in Kansas City." He said either Geico or Enterprise "took [the truck] out" to Kansas City. During this time, Schooler searched a backpack he brought into the patrol vehicle for airline tickets. He never found them.

         Stopper continued prodding, saying he had "never heard of anything like this happening." Schooler said he took the trailer to Colorado to help out some friends. When Stopper asked their names, Schooler said, "Oh. Alright." Then, after a pause, he asked if he was "in some kind of trouble . . . ." Stopper responded, "Well, your story's a little odd. I'm just trying to make sure everything's on the up-and-up and legit here." The encounter had lasted five minutes and 45 seconds at this point.

         About six minutes into the stop, the deputy received responses on his mobile data terminal advising him that Schooler was on federal supervised release. Stopper learned there were no outstanding warrants and the vehicle registration checked out properly. Schooler denied being "on probation or anything," but said he had been arrested "for a few things . . . ." Schooler soon admitted his supervised release status but denied being on probation. When asked why he was on federal supervised release, Schooler sighed and said "that was," paused, sighed, and then told Stopper he was not "up to [unintelligible] no good" and was "just trying to get home."

         About seven minutes and 30 seconds into the stop, Stopper radioed his dispatch with Schooler's driver's license number and date of birth. He explained at the suppression hearing he did this to get additional information and verify what Schooler was telling him because the mobile data terminal could not access the appropriate databases. While waiting, the deputy returned to questioning about "pretrial status and stuff" because he knew "most times" a person on pretrial supervision is not supposed to leave the state. The deputy asked what Schooler got in trouble for, and Schooler said it was for controlled substances. Stopper asked how much and Schooler said "very little." Stopper asked why it was federal supervision, and Schooler said "it was on a base" in 2005. Stopper expressed disbelief Schooler was still on probation in 2016, and Schooler said that status would last another five years. The deputy asked what kind of controlled substance and Schooler said "a little bit of cocaine . . . ." Stopper later testified he believed the probation term Schooler described meant the conviction was "probably [for] more than just a little bit of cocaine." Stopper resumed questioning about the trailer and trip to Colorado. Schooler said he picked it up from a friend's friend.

         At about nine minutes and 40 seconds into the stop, the deputy asked Schooler if he was "being truthful" because he had "never heard anything like this." Schooler said there was nothing for him to lie about. Schooler offered to make a phone call. The deputy declined but persisted in asking why the friends did not move their own trailer and commenting it was a long way out of the way. Schooler could not recall from whom he picked up the trailer. Stopper then asked how much Schooler's baggage fees were because the large duffel bag was probably expensive to take on a plane. He also noted Schooler had other large items in the truck, which Schooler said mostly came from the duffel bag, although that bag appeared full.

         At about 11 minutes and 45 seconds into the stop, the deputy explained to Schooler he was continuing to wait for record check verifications. Stopper asked Schooler to verify his address again, asked him to explain his supervised release, and inquired about prior arrests. The deputy asked Schooler if he was "actually supposed to be out of the state." Stopper again asked when Schooler flew into Kansas City.

         At about 13 minutes into the stop, the deputy radioed to dispatch variations in the vehicle license tag numbers, noting the snow was obscuring some letters and numbers and some might have been reported incorrectly earlier. At that point, the deputy received a radio call that seems to have conveyed additional criminal history information. Then, referring to Schooler's earlier statement that he had been arrested for "a little bit of cocaine," Stopper said, "I think that was more than just a little bit, it said importation." Schooler responded, "[I]t's just what they hit me with, sir," saying it was a federal matter and happened on a military base.

         Almost 15 minutes into the stop, the deputy again read license plate number variations into the radio.

         At 17 minutes into the stop, the deputy explained he was giving Schooler a warning ticket for the obscured license plate and asked Schooler for his signature. Stopper then told Schooler, "[Y]ou're good to go." This was 18 minutes into the stop.

         Almost immediately, the deputy said, "Mr. Schooler, can I ask you a couple more questions?" As Schooler began to say he "just [wanted] to get back on the road," Stopper asked if he had contraband, large amounts of currency, or firearms in his vehicle. Schooler said he did not and denied a request to search the truck. Stopper told Schooler he was being detained because "[y]our story's garbage. I believe criminal activity is afoot." The stop lasted 18 minutes and 30 seconds up to this point.

         A drug dog arrived 11 minutes later. Schooler continued denying anything illegal was in the truck. The dog alerted. Inside the duffle bag, 38 pounds of marijuana and a set of scales were discovered. Schooler was arrested and charged with narcotics offenses. See K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-5705(a) (possession with intent to distribute); K.S.A. 79-5208 (dealer possessing marijuana without tax stamp).

         The district court suppression hearing

         Schooler moved to suppress the marijuana and other evidence seized in the search, arguing delays in calling for the driver's license and vehicle plate checks resulted from questioning unrelated to the stop and were unsupported by reasonable suspicion. He claimed the deputy, in effect, conceded he lacked reasonable suspicion to detain him when he told Schooler he was "good to go."

         The State countered that travel plan inquiries as a generic category do not extend a traffic stop. It also argued the deputy was permitted to follow up on inconsistent or implausible answers because Schooler's story was questionable from the outset, so the officer had a duty to verify the rental vehicle's lawful possession and resolve the inconsistencies. The State contended Schooler's "bizarre story" was enough to detain him for the dog sniff and argued there was reasonable suspicion because Schooler lied about his criminal history.

         At the district court's suppression hearing, Stopper was the only witness. He testified he had worked for the Geary County Sheriff's Department for more than seven years. Two years before that he was a Junction City police officer. The State did ...

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