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May 30, 2022

Federal Court of Appeals Rules Violation of 4th Amendment in 2019 Case

In a stunning reversal the United States Court of Appeals for the Third District ruled that two Philadelphia Officers violated the 4th amendment when they prolonged a traffic stop, which resulted in the arrest of Jamel Hurtt for illegally possessing a firearm.

On February 23, 2019 at around 2:00 a.m. Philadelphia Police Officers, Lance Cannon and Daniel Gonzalez, were on patrol in an area both officers described in court as “very violent” when they observed a 2-door pickup truck roll through a stop sign and fail to signal a turn. A traffic stop ensued with Cannon approaching on the driver’s side and Gonzalez approaching on the passenger side. 3 people were discovered inside the vehicle.

After smelling alcohol, the officers removed the driver from the vehicle to conduct standard field sobriety tests. While Gonzalez conducted field sobriety tests, Cannon entered the vehicle by kneeling on the driver’s seat and speaking to both passengers. After instructing both passengers to keep their hands visible 3 separate times, and the occupants failing to follow commands, Cannon exited the vehicle and walked around to the passenger side. While getting the passenger out Cannon observed the other passenger Hurtt turn his back to him and reach toward a tool bucket on the seat next to him. Hurtt was instructed to show his hands, which he did, but then for a second time Hurtt reached for the tool bucket. Cannon caught Hurtt’s arm and ordered him out of the vehicle where a search revealed a loaded handgun in Hurtt’s waistband. Hurtt is a convicted felon and was arrested for possessing the firearm.

The court of appeals cited Rodriguez v. United States in their decision which establishes a test for the lawfulness of an extension of a traffic stop. The court ruled the Rodriguez “moment” occurred when Gonzalez stopped the field sobriety testing in order to assist Cannon. The Rodriguez case reasoned that a safety precaution taken in order to facilitate an investigation of other crimes is not justified as part of a routine traffic stop.

The court came to the conclusion that Cannon created a safety concern while off-mission when he entered the vehicle, putting himself in a vulnerable position. Hurtt argued that the lawful mission of the stop was to investigate a traffic violation and possible DUI. The court agreed that the delay in field sobriety testing, although brief, improperly extended the traffic stop and the subsequent search of Hurtt was inconsistent with the limitations imposed by Rodriguez.

The court ruled, “Officer Cannon created a safety concern while off-mission from the purpose of the original traffic stop and thereby prolonged Hurtt’s detention. Since the disputed evidence was only uncovered after the officers went off mission, the officers wrongly extended the traffic stop and violated Hurtt’s 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.”

What do you think of the ruling? The link to the full decision can be found below as well as the link to the Rodriguez V. United States case. Let us know in the comments what you think about this decision and how it might impact law enforcement nationwide.