How long can a traffic stop last? Can officers “prolong” a stop and order a drug dog? Also, can police officers baptize you in lieu of a ticket? April 17, 2019, William Klaver was driving south towards Chattanooga, Tennessee. Police Officer Daniel Wilkey, a Hamilton County deputy sheriff, stopped Klaver for a tinted-window violation. The driver didn’t know it at the time, but he was facing a police officer described by the New York Times seven months later as having been charged “with rape, extortion, stalking and assault,” as well as “false imprisonment, child molestation and forced baptism.” Yes, that’s right. “Forced baptism.” And there’s video, believe it or not.
After stopping the driver and approaching his window, Wilkey told Klaver that he stopped him because his windows were “way too dark” and requested his driver’s license. It was 8:10 p.m. As Klaver searched for his license, Wilkey inquired about where Klaver was headed. When Klaver didn’t respond, Wilkey asked, “Not going to talk to me?” At about this time, Police Officer Tyler McRae, another Hamilton County deputy, pulled up and approached the vehicle’s passenger side window. After several seconds, Wilkey asked Klaver, “You okay?” and again requested his license. Klaver then asked, “Am I being detained?” Wilkey responded “yes” because of the “window-tint violation,” after which Klaver handed over his license.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits police officers from prolonging a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to investigate (and write a ticket for) a traffic violation unless the officers have reasonable suspicion that the stopped vehicle’s occupants are engaging in other crimes. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354-56 (2015). Officers may detain the driver only for the time necessary to complete the tasks associated with the reason for the stop.
The Supreme Court has provided a list of acceptable tasks that are connected generally to safety and driver responsibility:
Officers will usually question a driver about the traffic infraction; they will run the driver’s license plate; they will request and review the vehicle’s registration and insurance; they will check for outstanding warrants; and lastly they will write a ticket. Officers also commonly question drivers about their travel plans. So long as they do so during the time that they undertake the traffic-related tasks for the infraction that justifies the stop (Arizona v. Johnson), officers may also ask questions about whether the driver has drugs or weapons in the car, or even walk a drug-sniffing dog around the car (Illinois v. Caballes). These unrelated tasks turn a reasonable stop into an unreasonable seizure if it “prolongs” the stop. Officers may not avoid this rule by “slow walking” the traffic-related aspects of the stop to get more time to investigate other potential crimes.
Once the traffic-related basis for the stop ends (or reasonably should have ended), the officer must justify any further “seizure” on a reasonable suspicion that the driver is committing those other crimes. See Hernandez v. Boles (6th Cir. 2020).
The reasonable suspicion basis for the traffic stop detainment was an allegation of dark tint. Later, the officers would argue the existence of other criminal suspicion, including suspicion of Klaver being a “sovereign citizen” and Klaver visibly shaking. This, they would argue, justified the officers suspecting Klaver of being in possession of drugs. As Wilkey and McRae headed back to Wilkey’s cruiser, Wilkey said the words “sovereign citizen” to McRae. The officers then talked. Wilkey observed that Klaver’s van had an “obstruction” which was a Marine Corps sticker, over his license plate. He also claims to have noticed that Klaver was “shaking like a leaf.” He told McRae they should “make sure he ain’t got no pot or anything.” Wilkey suggested that they call for a drug-sniffing dog. McRae agreed because Klaver would “say no to a search.” A criminal background check revealed no relevant criminal history.
About 5 minutes into the stop, the officers returned to Klaver’s van and requested his registration and insurance card. Wilkey continued to question Klaver. He asked him whether he had ever been arrested; whether he was on any “kind of medication” or had “any kind of disability,” because “you’re shaking.” He asked if he had “Parkinson’s or anything like that?” Klaver responded he didn’t think that Wilkey was entitled to ask him these questions. Wilkey responded that Klaver’s shaking suggested he was “hiding something” or had “drugs.” He asked, “you don’t have any of that, do you?” Klaver responded, “You know I don’t.” A minute later, Wilkey again asked Klaver if he had anything illegal in the car like “weapons or anything like that.” Klaver said no.
Did the deputies have reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop?
To have reasonable suspicion here, the deputies needed a “particularized” belief (that is, one tied to Klaver) and an “objective” belief (that is, one tied to articulable facts rather than amorphous hunches) that Klaver possessed drugs. The court looks to the totality of the circumstances.
The 6th Circuit rejected the officers’ claims that Klaver might be a “sovereign citizen” solely because he asked if they were detaining him. They noted that the video showed that Klaver was reasonably polite, not loudly confrontational. “Unless everyone who is reluctant to speak with the police might be a ‘sovereign citizen,’ the deputies’ claim appears to have rested more on a ‘subjective hunch’ than objective facts.” The Court noted that the officers failed to identify a single judicial decision or evidentiary citation suggesting that a person’s “sovereign citizen” status correlates with the likelihood of possessing drugs. Therefore the assumption was irrelevant.
The 6th Circuit also rejected the officers’ claims that Mr. Klaver shaking justified a suspicion of possessing drugs. “Many law-abiding people show their nerves in the same way when confronted by the police . . . [s]o we have always given nervous shaking little weight,” as it “amounts to a weak indicator of crime.” The Court also rejected the officers’ claims that Mr. Klaver’s reluctance to cooperate or respond to questions, including about why he was shaking, justified a suspicion of possessing drugs. A suspect generally does not have a duty to cooperate, and so the lack of cooperation does not alone provide reasonable suspicion to believe that the suspect is committing a crime.” See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U.S. 429, 437 (1991).
Wilkey then asked permission to search the van. Klaver responded, “I refuse permission for you to search my vehicle” and said “there’s nothing in here.” Wilkey continued to ask many of the same questions he had already asked, about the reason for Klaver shaking.
At 8:18 p.m., now 8 minutes into the stop, the deputies returned to the police cruiser and requested a canine officer. Dispatch informed them two minutes later than one was in route to the scene. Wilkey then filled out paperwork for the traffic ticket over the next several minutes. At 8:24 p.m., McRae approached Klaver. A few minutes before, Klaver began recording video from inside his van. He filmed himself peeling the tint from the inside of his driver’s side door window. McRae attempted to ask him about his military service. Klaver responded that he didn’t mean to be “disrespectful,” but that he would not “answer any more questions.” He stated that he wanted to be “on my way” if they were not arresting him. McRae stated that Wilkey was writing a ticket. Klaver said they needed a reason to detain him. McRae described the window tint and license plate violations, and then returned to Wilkey’s cruiser.
Deputy Wilkey continued filling out the ticket until the canine officer arrived at 8:32 p.m. The stop had now persisted 22 minutes. Wilkey told the canine officer that Klaver was likely a “sovereign citizen” who was “being combative” and “trying to conceal himself.” He said that the canine officer should let him finish with the ticket before deploying the dog in case Klaver “does something stupid.” Wilkey then returned to the van and ordered Klaver to exit the van for the dog sniff. He patted Klaver down and discussed the citation with him as the dog circled the van. Klaver now told Wilkey that the tint was now off his driver’s side window.
At 8:40 p.m. Deputy McRae told Wilkey (and an incredulous Klaver) that the dog had alerted to drugs in the van. McRae and Wilkey then searched the van for five minutes. They found nothing. Wilkey again asked Klaver whether he had drugs. Klaver again answered that he did not. As Klaver signed the citation, he said to Wilkey: “In case you were wondering, I have muscular dystrophy.” Wilkey replied: “That’s all you had to say, sir.” Klaver then drove off at 8:50 p.m.
Mr. Klaver filed a pro se lawsuit against Wilkey and McRae (among others). The defendant officers moved for summary judgment. The Court denied the motions on the ground that the officers unreasonably prolonged the stop without reasonable suspicion that Klaver possessed illegal drugs. The defendant officers filed an immediate appeal on qualified immunity grounds. The 6th Circuit issued an opinion on November 3, 2022.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits police officers from prolonging a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to investigate (and write a ticket for) a traffic violation unless the officers have reasonable suspicion that the stopped vehicle’s occupants are engaging in other crimes. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 354-56 (2015).
1. Did Wilkey and McRae prolong the stop beyond the time necessary to resolve the window-tint violation?
2. If so, did they have reasonable suspicion to believe that Klaver was engaging in other crimes?
The 6th Circuit held that a reasonable jury could find that both Wilkey and McRae unreasonably prolonged the stop.
The 6th Circuit upheld the denial of qualified immunity to the officers, noting that, “[w]e have a mountain of caselaw indicating that heightened nerves represent weak evidence of wrongdoing and cannot be the primary justification for a stop.
Stay tuned for Part 2, on the aftermath of Daniel Wilkey…