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De La Rosa v. White

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

March 27, 2017

Raul De La Rosa Plaintiff- Appellee
Trooper Mark White Defendant-Appellant

          Submitted: October 25, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Nebraska - Lincoln

          Before RILEY, Chief Judge, [1] BEAM and LOKEN, Circuit Judges.


         In March 2012, Nebraska state trooper Mark White stopped a Ford Ranger pickup truck on Interstate 80 in Seward County, Nebraska for following another vehicle too closely. See Neb. Rev. Stat. § 60-6, 140(1). After the driver, Raul De La Rosa, provided his Arizona license, Trooper White issued a warning and completed the traffic stop in less than fifteen minutes. However, when De La Rosa refused to consent to a search of the pickup, Trooper White called for a drug detection dog and detained De La Rosa for fifty minutes before the dog arrived from Omaha. The dog alerted to De La Rosa's vehicle; an interior search uncovered a small amount of marijuana and three concealed firearms. De La Rosa was arrested and charged in state court with carrying concealed firearms. The charges were dismissed after the state trial court granted De La Rosa's motion to suppress the firearms.

         De La Rosa then filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 damage action in state court, alleging that Trooper White unconstitutionally initiated a traffic stop and questioned, detained, and arrested De La Rosa without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. White removed the case to the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska and now appeals the district court's denial of his motion for summary judgment based on qualified immunity. "An interlocutory order denying qualified immunity is immediately appealable to the extent that it turns on an issue of law." Aaron v. Shelley, 624 F.3d 882, 883 (8th Cir. 2010) (quotations omitted). Reviewing the denial of qualified immunity de novo, we reverse. See New v. Denver, 787 F.3d 895, 899 (8th Cir. 2015) (standard of review).


         A. Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil damage liability for discretionary action that "does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). Qualified immunity is an immunity from suit, not a mere defense to liability. The Supreme Court has "stressed the importance of resolving immunity questions at the earliest possible stage in litigation." Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009) (quotation omitted). To avoid pretrial dismissal, a plaintiff must present facts showing the violation of a constitutional right that was clearly established at the time of the defendant's act. Id. at 232-33, 236.

         B. The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. A traffic stop is constitutionally reasonable "where the police have probable cause to believe that a traffic violation has occurred." Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 809-10 (1996). A traffic stop may include inquiries incident to determining whether to issue a citation, and limited unrelated inquiries such as checking to determine if the vehicle occupants are wanted for prior offenses. See Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609, 1614-15 (2015). However, extending the detention beyond the time needed to complete the traffic-ticketing process is unlawful unless additional investigation, such as a dog sniff of the vehicle's exterior, is warranted by the officer's reasonable suspicion that other criminal activity may be afoot. See Rodriguez, 135 S.Ct. at 1616; United States v. Sokolow, 490 U.S. 1, 7 (1989). In this case, the district court granted Trooper White summary judgment "to the extent that De La Rosa is claiming a constitutional violation based on the initial stop." De La Rosa does not challenge that ruling on appeal. Thus, the only issue before us is whether Trooper White is entitled to qualified immunity from the claim that he lacked reasonable suspicion warranting a fifty-minute extension of the traffic stop while he summoned a drug dog that alerted to De La Rosa's pickup.

         C. Reasonable suspicion is a fact-specific determination: a reviewing court must "look at the totality of the circumstances of each case to see whether the detaining officer has a particularized and objective basis for suspecting legal wrongdoing." United States v. Arvizu, 534 U.S. 266, 273 (2002) (quotations omitted). Reasonable suspicion requires that the officer possess at least "some minimal level of objective justification." Sokolow, 490 U.S. at 7 (quotation omitted). Thus, courts must not uphold "virtually random seizures" based on "circumstances [that] describe a very large category of presumably innocent travelers." Reid v. Georgia, 448 U.S. 438, 441 (1980). But in making determinations of probable cause and reasonable suspicion, "the relevant inquiry is not whether particular conduct is 'innocent' or 'guilty, ' but the degree of suspicion that attaches to particular types of noncriminal acts." Sokolow, 490 U.S. at 10 (quotation omitted).


         In this case, after initiating the traffic stop, Trooper White observed a spare tire in the bed of the pickup truck, obtained De La Rosa's Arizona driver's license, and asked De La Rosa about his travels and employment. De La Rosa said he was traveling from Phoenix, Arizona to visit family or friends in Peoria, Illinois. Though unemployed, De La Rosa said he performed "odd jobs" in Arizona to finance the trip. Trooper White asked if De La Rosa had "been in trouble in the past with drugs, guns, or anything else." De La Rosa said no. Lincoln Dispatch advised that De La Rosa had a criminal history for destruction of property in 2005. Questioned further, De La Rosa explained that the charges were dropped, an explanation confirmed in the report dispatched to White's computer.[2] Trooper White issued a warning ticket, returned De La Rosa's documentation, and told him that he was "free to go." As De La Rosa exited the patrol car, White asked whether he had drugs or anything in the vehicle that shouldn't be there. De La Rosa said no. White asked for consent to search the vehicle; De La Rosa refused. White then told De La Rosa he was calling a drug detection canine unit to conduct an exterior sniff of the vehicle.

         In denying Trooper White qualified immunity, the district court considered the uncontroverted facts in White's statement of undisputed material facts, supplemented by facts in De La Rosa's affidavit and exhibits that provided "little additional substance." The court properly recognized that an officer needs reasonable suspicion to detain the motorist after completing a traffic stop, an inquiry based on the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the time. The court then identified the following facts as the basis for Trooper White's suspicion of criminal activity:

De La Rosa allegedly lied about having a criminal history because he said he had not "been in trouble with guns, drugs, or anything else" but he had been charged, in ...

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