How Much Of Your Time Can A Cop Waste?

A police officer cannot indefinitely detain you during a traffic stop. They also cannot dither about and waste your time. According to State v. Baker, a police officer can only keep you long enough as is necessary “to effectuate the purpose of the stop.”

For instance, if they pull you over because of a traffic violation, they cannot keep you waiting around for a drug sniffing dog. They either need to cite you or let you go.

As with anything in the law, there are nuances. If the officer notices bloodshot eyes, he can investigate that. Police can prolong a stop if they have reasonable suspicion of some other crime. A recent case by the Supreme Court of Utah, State v. Binks 2018 UT 11, explores the issue of how long an officer can keep you with reasonable suspicion. In my opinion, it goes too far.

In Binks, the defendant was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Officers were conducting a stakeout on a place suspected of drug-dealing. They had a warrant that allowed them to detain and search anyone they saw leaving the apartment. They saw the defendant leaving the apartment and decided to follow him. During that time, they observed Binks breaking several traffic laws. On that basis, the officers were justified in stopping him irrespective of a warrant to do so. When they did, they noticed he had bloodshot eyes, that he was visibly shaking and that the car smelled of alcohol.

The officers first conducted field sobriety tests and ran his information. He passed his tests. While they were running his information, one of the investigating officers received a call that Binks had definitely purchased meth. They then conducted a search on him and found drugs.  

Binks argues that they should have let him go as soon as they finished the investigation of his license and had finished the FSTs. The court in Binks disagreed. They held that although they had completed their investigation as to alcohol and the traffic stops, they were still “entitled to continue their investigation into drug possession.” The phone call wasn’t necessary, either. The court here recognized that the cops had reasonable suspicion of drugs from the get-go.

This ruling is troublesome to me as it gives the police authority to investigate various points of reasonable suspicion in succession rather than all at once. This seems to be in complete contravention to the spirit of Baker, wherein police are supposed to expeditiously conclude their investigations. This ruling potentially allows for the same amount of time to be wasted as before Baker. If an officer receives reasonable suspicion of several crimes, the officer may investigate them one at a time. In some cases, this may be unavoidable. But in situations of drugs and alcohol, I do not think that is the case.

A search of their person may coincide with an FST if they have reasonable suspicion for both. In this case, he could of had one officer search the vehicle while the other conducted the FSTs. In Binks, the officers already knew of him leaving a known drug house. They had every reason to believe that he likely had drugs in his possession and could justify a search. They simply forgot to do so or didn’t realize they had it.

Binks was in a bad spot no matter what. The implications of Binks, however, is troubling. This is a step backward from the protections offered in Baker. My take-away from this case is that cops are not obligated to conclude a search in the most expeditious manner so long as they are investigating their reasonable suspicions.

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