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September 8, 2015
  United States v. Diaz
Headline: Second Circuit Holds That Brief Lane Deviations - Including a Large Truck's Touching the Solid Line Separating the Highway Lane from the Shoulder - Can Create Reasonable Suspicion for Fourth Amendment Purposes

Area of Law: Criminal Procedure

Issue(s) Presented: Whether a vehicle's wheels touching or crossing the solid painted lines of a highway gives rise to reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation, such that a resulting traffic stop is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

Brief Summary: Felipe and Wellington Diaz were driving an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer through Meridian, Mississippi when Senior Police Office Gordon Christopher Read received a tip from the United States Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") that a red or white tractor-trailer suspected of trafficking narcotics was an hour-and-half from his current location. Approximately two hours later, Read began driving on a local four-lane highway to resume his ordinary duties. As he drove, he noticed a black tractor-trailer also on the highway, and saw that on two occasions, the tractor-trailer's right rear wheels crossed the white line separating the right lane of traffic from the right shoulder of the road. Believing that this constituted careless driving in violation of Mississippi law, Officer Read stopped the tractor-trailer, which was subsequently searched by other Meridian Police Department officers. The search yielded approximately five kilograms of heroin and four kilograms of cocaine. A federal grand jury in the Southern District of New York returned an indictment against both Felipe and Wellington for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute. During district court proceedings, Wellington moved to suppress the drugs recovered from the tractor-trailer as evidence. The district court granted the motion, noting that the tractor-trailer was virtually as wide as the highway lane, and the testimony about "two momentary touches of the highway divider" was insufficient to create reasonable suspicion, rendering the search unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, holding that under the totality of the circumstances, there was reasonable suspicion here, such that the search did not violate the Fourth Amendment. To read the full opinion, please visit http://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/de...3c40f631948/1/hilite/

Extended Summary: The Fourth Amendment permits brief investigative stops, such as a traffic stop, when a law enforcement officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of criminal activity, or traffic violation. A reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation provides a sufficient basis under the Fourth Amendment for law enforcement officers to make a traffic stop. The reasonable suspicion standard requires less proof of wrongdoing than is necessary for probable cause, but does require some minimal level of objective justification. This is an objective injury that disregards the officer's subjective motivation and asks whether a reasonable officer would suspect unlawful activity under the totality of the circumstances.

Here, in examining the constitutionality of this search, the district court noted that the tractor-trailer was virtually as wide as the entire lane and that "normal driving and atmospheric conditions often cause a slight drift of the rear of the rig." The court concluded that "momentary touching by the back four wheels of a 53 foot truck along the [divider line]" did not amount to careless or impudent driving, and that the officer had lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.

On appeal, the government argued that in the absence of adverse conditions, crossing the white line twice established an objectively reasonable suspicion to believe that a traffic violation had occurred. The Second Circuit agreed. Explaining that there is no bright-line rule here, the court examined the totality of the circumstances leading to Officer Read's stop of the Diaz tractor-trailer. It concluded that the observation of the tractor-trailer twice deviating from its lane would warrant a person of reasonable caution that the driver that been driving in a careless or imprudent manner, without due regard for the width, grade, curves, corners traffic and use of the streets and highways and all other attendant circumstances. The court further noted that Mississippi state law, while not binding, supported the contention that an officer's observation of one or more lane-line incursions justified a traffic stop pursuant to the state's careless driving statute.

The Court thus reversed and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings, explaining that on remand, the district court should consider the parties' remaining arguments as to the constitutional of the stop and ensuing search.

Panel: Circuit Judges Sack, Wesley, and Hall

Argument Date: June 3, 2015

Argument Location:
New York

Date of Issued Opinion: September 8, 2015

Docket Number: Nos. 14-2505, 14-2689

Decided: Reversed and Remanded

Case Alert Author: Elizabeth Perreca

Counsel: Joshua A. Naftalis, for Preet Bharara, United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, for Appellant, Susan Jewell Walsh, Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, P.C., for Defendant-Appellee and Jesse M. Siegel, for Defendant-Appellee. Terry Neill Grimes, Grimes & Williams, P.C., for Plaintiff-Appellant Clinton Stephen Morse and Joseph M. Rainsbury, LeClairRyan, for Defendant-Appellee

Author of Opinion: Judge Sack

Circuit: 2nd Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor:
Professor Emily Gold Waldman

    Posted By: Emily Waldman @ 09/08/2015 09:40 PM     2nd Circuit  

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