United States v. Sowards, No. 10-4133

Decided: June 26, 2011

On appeal, Sean C. Sowards argued that the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress because the police lacked probable cause to initiate a traffic stop based exclusively on an officer’s visual estimate – uncorroborated by radar or pacing and unsupported by any other indicia of reliability – that Sowards’s vehicle was traveling 75 miles per hour (mph) in a 70 mph zone.  The Court of Appeals agreed, reversing and remanding the case.

Deputy James Elliott stopped Sowards for speeding on North Carolina I-77 after visually estimating that Sowards’s vehicle was traveling 75 mph in a 70 mph zone.  During the traffic stop, Deputy Elliott’s drug detection dog signaled the possible presence of a controlled substance, and subsequently 10 kilograms of cocaine were found in Sowards’s car.  Before trial, Sowards moved to suppress the evidence on the basis that Deputy Elliott lacked probably cause to initiate the traffic stop in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  At the suppression hearing Deputy Elliott testified that he had been certified three different times in the use of radar equipment in North Carolina, and as a condition of obtaining certification he was required to visually estimate the speed of twelve different vehicles and have his estimates verified with radar.  To pass the test, Deputy Elliott could not be off by more than 12 mph on any one vehicle and could not exceed 42 mph off for all twelve vehicles.  Deputy Elliott also testified that he did not attempt to verify his visual speed estimate with his radar unit.  His testimony revealed that he had great difficulty with measurements.  The district court denied Sowards’ motion to suppress and finding that Deputy Elliott had probable cause to initiate the traffic stop because he was trained to estimate speeds and his difficulty with measurements was immaterial to his estimate of speed as it did not depend on time or distance.   Sowards subsequently entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal any issues related to the suppression motion, and filed a timely notice of appeal.

On appeal, the sole issue was whether Deputy Elliott’s traffic stop of Sowards’s vehicle was supported by probable cause in order for the district court to have properly denied Sowards’s motion to suppress the evidence seized from the car as a result of the traffic stop.  The Court of Appeals reviews the district court’s legal determinations de novo and its factual determinations for clear error, where a factual finding may only be reversed it the reviewing court is left with the definite conviction that a mistake has been committed.  The evidence must be construed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party below, the Government.

The Fourth Amendment guarantees freedom against unreasonable searches and seizures.  When a police officer stops an automobile and detains the occupants briefly, the stop amounts to a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  The underlying command of the Fourth Amendment is that searches and seizures be reasonable.  Generally, the decision to stop an automobile is reasonable where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred.  Probable cause exists if, given the totality of the circumstances, the officer had reasonably trustworthy information sufficient to warrant a prudent person in believing that the petitioner had committed or was committing an offense.

The Court of Appeals began its inquiry with whether, under the totality of the circumstances, Deputy Elliott had reasonably trustworthy information to support a prudent person’s belief that Sowards was speeding.  The majority held based on the record that: first, it was error for the district court to find that Deputy Elliott was trained to estimate speeds, because he was trained to use a radar unit; and second, it was clear error for the district court to find that Deputy Elliott’s difficulty with measurements was immaterial to his estimate of speed.  Despite these two erroneous factual findings, the district court held that Deputy Elliott’s visual speed estimate alone served as probable cause for Deputy Elliott to stop Sowards’s vehicle.  The Fourth Circuit majority held that the Fourth Amendment does not support the proposition that an officer’s visual speed estimate alone will always suffice as a basis for probable cause to initiate a traffic stop.  Furthermore, the reasonableness of an officer’s speed estimate depends on whether a vehicle’s speed is estimated to be in significant excess or slight excess of the legal speed limit, and if slight, additional indicia of reliability such as radar or pacing methods are required to support the reasonableness of the officer’s visual estimate.  The majority further held that in the absence of additional indicia of reliability, an officer’s visual approximation that a vehicle is traveling in slight excess of the legal speed limit is merely a guess and lacks the foundation to provide an officer with reasonably trustworthy information to initiate a traffic stop.  Concluding that Deputy Elliott’s visual speed estimate was merely a guess, the majority held it was not an objectively reasonable basis for probable cause to initiate a traffic stop and therefore the seizure was constitutionally unreasonable and all evidence gathered pursuant to the search must be suppressed, reversing the district court’s holding.

Writing separately in dissent, Judge Traxler expressed his disagreement with the majority’s holding that “an officer working along and without radar cannot even pull the car over for a warning as long as the driver is reasonably believed to be only breaking the law slightly as opposed to significantly.”  Judge Traxler further expressed his opinion that the facts and circumstances known to Deputy Elliott, along with his practical experience in traffic enforcement, training and reasonable inferences, were more than sufficient to warrant an objectively reasonable belief that Sowards was speeding.  Judge Traxler also stated his disagreement with the majority’s holding that an officer should have to corroborate his visual estimate with additional indicia of reliability if the estimate was only slightly in excess of the speed, opining that adopting an absolute rule requiring corroborating evidence was unwarranted and unsupported by case law.

Full Opinion

-Nora Bennani

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