May an Officer Run a Motorist’s Criminal Record During a Traffic Stop?

An officer who stops a motorist for a traffic infraction may run a computer check on the driver’s license and may check for outstanding warrants. The results of these checks may determine how the officer proceeds. For example, if a check reveals that the driver’s license is revoked, the officer may charge the driver with DWLR and may direct the driver that he or she cannot drive the vehicle away from the location of the stop.

May an officer also check a motorist’s criminal record? Such historical information is less likely to dictate the officer’s course of action. But knowing whether a motorist has a record of violent crimes may help an officer determine how cautious he or she must be while completing the stop. This post discusses whether an officer may take time to run a motorist’s criminal record, and summarizes two recent cases on point.

Record checks and Rodriguez. In Rodriguez v. United States, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), the Supreme Court ruled that a stop may not be extended beyond the time necessary to complete the “mission” of the stop, which is “to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop . . . and attend to related safety concerns.” Rodriguez states that “checking the driver’s license” and “determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver” are “ordinary inquiries” that are a legitimate part of a traffic stop. However, the case doesn’t address criminal record checks.

Split of authority. Since Rodriguez, courts have disagreed about whether criminal history checks that add to the duration of a stop are permitted under this standard. Compare, e.g., United States v. Evans, 786 F.3d 779 (9th Cir. 2015) (ruling that an officer improperly extended a traffic stop to conduct an “ex-felon registration check,” a procedure that inquired into a subject’s criminal history and whether he had registered his address with the sheriff as required for certain offenders in the state in which the stop took place), with, e.g., United States v. Palmer, 820 F.3d 640 (4th Cir. 2016) (stating that “[a]n officer is entitled to conduct safety-related checks that do not bear directly on the reasons for the stop, such as requesting a driver’s license and vehicle registration, or checking for criminal records and outstanding arrest warrants”). A criminal record check that doesn’t extend a stop would clearly be permissible under Rodriguez.

The Court of Appeals of North Carolina touched on this issue when it ruled that an officer improperly “extended [a] stop further when he had defendant get into his patrol vehicle and ran defendant’s name through numerous databases while being questioned, as this went beyond an authorized, routine check of a driver’s license or for warrants.” State v. Bullock, __ N.C. App. __, 785 S.E.2d 746 (2016) (emphasis supplied), temp. stay allowed, __ N.C. __, 786 S.E.2d 3. That ruling has been stayed, so stay tuned for further developments.

Fourth Circuit case. The new case that prompted this post is United States v. Hill, 852 F.3d 377 (4th Cir. 2017). Virginia officers stopped a vehicle for speeding and crossing a double yellow line. There were two occupants in the vehicle, and the officers ran computer checks on both using “databases operated by the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the National Crime Information Center (NCIC)” as well as a local database that tracked “every person that has had prior contacts with the police.” While one officer was running the computer checks and writing citations, the other was talking with the vehicle’s occupants. The passenger eventually admitted having a gun, and was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm. The case made its way to the Fourth Circuit, which considered and rejected the passenger’s argument that checking the local database improperly extended the stop and enabled the questioning that resulted in his admission of gun possession. The court ruled that, in the interest of officer safety, “an officer reasonably may search a computer database during a traffic stop to determine an individual’s prior contact with local law enforcement.” And it held that this was true for passengers as well as drivers of stopped vehicles.

Georgia case. While researching the law pertinent to this post, I came across a case from Georgia that I had not seen before. It addresses whether it matters when during a stop a criminal record check takes place. The case is State v. Allen, 779 S.E.2d 248 (Ga. 2015). It began when an officer stopped a car for making an illegal lane change. The officer completed all the steps necessary to address the infraction, including writing a warning ticket. Only at that point, as the stop was about to conclude, did the officer radio in a request for “computer records checks through . . . NCIC” on both the driver and the passenger. While awaiting a response, the officer deployed a drug dog, which alerted, and a subsequent probable cause search of the vehicle revealed drugs. The propriety of the record check perplexed the Georgia courts. The trial court ruled that checking the passenger’s record was not relevant to the mission of the stop and so improperly extended the stop. The intermediate court of appeals disagreed, but ruled that the record check was nonetheless improper because it took place at the conclusion of the stop, after any likely danger had passed and after the record check was of likely utility. Finally, the state supreme court rejected both views and determined that a record check of any vehicle occupant is a valid officer safety measure that may be completed at any point during a traffic stop.

Practical question. I’m curious about how separable a criminal history check is from a warrant check, given that the latter is clearly permissible. For example, does an NCIC warrant check automatically return criminal history information? If so, how detailed is that information? Both Hill and Bullock involve situations where officers queried databases beyond NCIC in order to learn more about a motorist, which makes me think that a warrant check doesn’t provide a great deal of information about a person’s record. If that is the case, and if officers frequently check additional sources of information to learn more about the people with whom they are interacting, then how courts view criminal history checks is an important issue.

13 thoughts on “May an Officer Run a Motorist’s Criminal Record During a Traffic Stop?”

  1. Well, in this state, we have at least two separate means to conduct such checks without the use of NCIC or DMV. I believe in the two different types of intelligence Strategic and Tactical. We have two different systems that can greatly aid in obtaining both. CJLeads and NCLinx. CJLeads provides some strategic intel, but for me it is closer associated with tactical, in that I can use it during a traffic stop quickly and with ease!

    For example: Some officers will ask their dispatcher to run the appropriate NCIC/DCI/NCAWARE checks for vehicle/License validation, while they quickly run their own CJLeads check. Often times, the CJLeads will return quicker. Now, all information coming from CJLeads and NCLinx are lead generators only and are not to be taken as fact for purposes of Probable Cause, but it returns critical criminal information in a manner which is easier to see than if you ran a detail check.

    For instance, on the top line next to the name will be a AWC Approach With Caution, then after, it will place the reasons why like: Resist Public Officer, Assault with Deadly weapon, or Drugs etc…This information can pop up while you are waiting for results of check with dispatcher and while you are typing up the citation.

    When I conduct a traffic stop, I use the CJLeads mainly to look for DL Suspensions or revokes and the top line indicators (AWC’s). If I get a hit on a suspended license, I ALWAYS contact the dispatcher as request verification. NCLinx on the other hand is more of a strategic intelligence. It actually provides access to case information (Summary’s included) of officer encounters with suspects. If you have never seen it or know of it, this is how it works. Once an agency has signed onto the program, there is an agreement that that agency will put certain information out to the NCLinx system. This information is placed into what is referred to a “Front Porch” for a mailman to stop by and pick up. What do I mean by that? Instead of NCLinx having direct access to your system, there is a go between area in which all of you most recent cases is placed for the NCLinx system to grab at a later time. Once they have it, it is accessible to all other participating agencies. An agency may choose to put just enough information in there to prompt a detective from an other agency to call and get the information directly, or they may choose to place all of the information out there. The value in this system is often times the devil is in the details! The case summary can be an integral and important part of developing probable cause. This system, just like CJLeads is a lead generator only, but to have additional names that are part of the case, but not necessarily part of the Subject/Victim/Witness blocks can be critical. Sorry that I rambled on a bit, but I wanted you to know why (Tactical/Strategic Intel) officers use outside databases and how we use them. I hope this helps a little!

  2. A check in NCIC for wanted persons does not reveal the person’s criminal record. It is another search and requires Module 2 certification with a purpose code. A check in NCAWARE for local (state wide) warrants could provide information on prior served warrants, if the correct request is made in the data base. I am not sure how the Court would decide on a NCIC records check for officer safety. It’s a toss up on that one. With the way the Courts have ruled lately, I would imagine they would not allow it.

  3. Is the Hill case going up higher to correct the opinion or is it done? Extending the stop 5 or 10 minutes in order to see what other law enforcement officers have written in a local police database concerning the driver’s and passenger’s previous contact with law enforcement (ie reputation in the police community) while questioning the driver and passenger about drugs and guns, all the while waiting on the drug dog to come, seems exactly like the sort of police misconduct that the Rodriguez court sought to curtail. The extension had nothing to do with arrest warrants, officer safety, or the mission of the seizure (to give a traffic ticket). Had the police followed proper procedure without extending the stop to look into the driver’s and passenger’s reputation amongst local law enforcement, the mission of the stop would have been completed 5 or 10 minutes before the admission to possession of a gun. The defense had it right in this case.

  4. I call it “fishing”. You don’t have RAS to detain. Let’s hold them here to see if we can find anything else. This type of action is exactly what the Rodriguez case was trying to address, at least in my opinion.

  5. the issue is what is “reasonable”. its not reasonable to ck the passenger. its not unreasonable to run the driver for outstanding warrants and license status if it can be done while writing the citation. I am not in favor of criminal conduct. However there are some officers (not most) who will abuse their power and try to search everything. we have a right to be free and we can’t give that freedom up. if you give a little they will take a lot. the courts have put the 4th amendment on life support.

  6. Well Les, that’s the PRIMARY job of a law enforcement officer…to LOOK (fish around) for crime. That’s clearly a part of the oath of office to enforce the laws of the State of N.C. as well as the N.C. Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

    And your opinion only counts if you can convince a jury of 12 that you’re right.

    So glad that the adults are back in charge in this country and this kind of strange warped liberal ‘thinking’ which is geared towards impeding this primary function of law enforcement is being rejected and mocked once again.

    • JW – An officer’s primary job is not to detain people illegally while the officer fishes for evidence of a crime. Think of it this way: an officer must not commit crimes in order to search for crimes. An officer must look for crime without committing crimes himself. When an officer detains someone illegally in order to fish for evidence of a crime that officer is committing a crime (class 1 misdemeanor false imprisonment) himself. Of course, he will not charge himself and none of his coworkers will charge him, but it is still a crime. Criminal acts by law enforcement officers are arguably worse than criminal acts by ordinary people because of the power and responsibility we give to law enforcement officers.

    • Officer Schrecker,
      You say that now until it happens to you, or your son. Bad things do happen to people who are trying to be good.

  7. Interesting post Jeff. I couldn’t help but think how future innovation and technological advances could affect the above case holdings. Checking databases nowadays is relatively easy and quick, yet 20-25 years ago it would be almost impossible to timely check such records or databases, if they existed. Rodriguez holds that a “stop may not be extended beyond the time necessary to complete the “mission” of the stop”, basically authorizing the “ordinary inquiry” of databases, records, etc., that can legally be conducted before the “mission of the stop” is completed. With the access to data and internet improving on an almost daily basis and the continuing digital compilation and organization of public records, one wonders what would be the standard when such record checks can occur almost simultaneously or automatically with the initiation of a stop. Accordingly, would there be differing standards in areas where data access is slower? Do you get a longer amount of time to complete the mission of a stop if you are in rural areas where such access takes longer? Where several of the courts used time as a determining factor or at least a strong factor, time as in length of a stop or when the record check occurred during the stop, what happens when the idea of “spending” or “consuming” time to complete a stop becomes outdated?


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