The Lawletter Vol. 43 No. 2
Ever since Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), courts have had to decide whether evidence discovered during routine traffic stops should be suppressed on the ground that the police unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop, even for a short time, to investigate matters unrelated to the purpose of the stop, and what should be considered matters unrelated to the purpose of the stop. A good example is the recent decision in Lerma v. State, No. PD-1229-16, 2018 WL 525427 (Tex. Crim. App. Jan. 24, 2018), in which the court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision suppressing evidence discovered on a passenger of a vehicle during a routine traffic stop. Contrary to the Court of Appeals’ holding, the Court of Criminal Appeals (Texas' highest court for criminal cases) determined that the officer conducting the traffic stop had reasonable suspicion to pat-down the passenger and that by questioning the passenger and patting him down, the officer did not unduly prolong the stop in violation of the holding in Rodriguez or the holding in St. George v. State, 237 S.W.3d 720 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007), upon which the Court of Appeals relied.
Rodriguez held that it is unlawful to prolong the traffic stop beyond the time reasonably necessary to complete the stop's mission and it does not matter whether the stop is unduly prolonged before or after the officer issues a ticket and completes the stop. Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. at 2626. Lerma, however, distinguished St. George on the basis that the traffic stop in the case before it had not yet been completed when the police investigated and frisked the passenger vehicle, while in St. George, the stop had been completed by giving the driver a warning only after which the officer began questioning the passenger. Lerma, 2018 WL 5254237, at *8. Lerma also distinguished St. George based on the fact that in St. George, two officers were present during the stop, while in Lerma, the officer was alone, which the court determined made it reasonable for him to question and identify the occupants of the car before running the driver's information through his computer. The holding in Lerma is an example of how courts can reach seemingly inconsistent and conflicting results in applying the holding in Rodriguez.