“Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That”: Probable Cause and the “Reasonable” Timing of Traffic Stops

Staci Miller

Recently, the Supreme Court of Kentucky held that a traffic stop stemming from the defendant running a red light that lasted almost two hours and resulted in the defendant being charged with drug-related offenses was “reasonable” under the circumstances.FN1 Now, it may not be immediately apparent why this holding is alarming, but the facts of this case and the relevant history should further sharpen the point.

On April 16, 2009, Ms. Bucalo, along with her six-year-old son were moving from one hotel to a nearby hotel and enlisted the help of her friend Nicholas Duke.FN2As they left in separate cars, the police followed. Earlier in the week the police officers were alerted to the “suspicious” behavior of the parties, which included paying for their bill in cash and declining cleaning service.FN3 The owner of the hotel found this behavior to be indicative of criminal behavior and called the police.

On the day in question, as the two parties left in their cars, one officer stayed behind to search the hotel room, finding no drug paraphernalia or residue in the room, he left the location.FN4 However, the officers following Bucalo and Duke witnessed the two cars run a red light and pulled the cars over individually. Although Bucalo declined to allow the officers to search her vehicle, Duke consented to a search of his car. In Duke’s car, the police found a pipe that contained drug residue.FN5 Duke claimed that the item belonged to Bucalo, as he was helping her move, and the officers turned their attention towards Bucalo and her vehicle.

Shortly thereafter, one of the officers radioed for a K-9 Unit to come to the location to search Bucalo’s car. After adjusting to the new environment, the K-9 Unit’s dog (Barry) made no alerts to the exterior of Bucalo’s vehicle.FN6 In fact, it was not until the officer pointed to specific places within the car for Barry to sniff that Barry alerted that there were narcotics within the vehicle. The entire exercise lasted about an hour and forty-five minutes.FN7 As a result, Bucalo was charged with and entered a conditional plea to inter alia one count of manufacturing methamphetamine and two counts of first-degree possession of a controlled substance.FN8

Despite the fact that there was no drug paraphernalia or residue found in the hotel room where Bucalo and Duke had been staying, the incriminating pipe was found in Duke’s car, the initial drug-sniff done by Barry did not result in an alert, and the entire stop, stemming from a traffic violation, lasted nearly two hours, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that the stop was supported by probable cause and “reasonable” under the circumstances. The Court used four factors to determine that the stop was both reasonable and “justified”.

The first factor the Court used was the constitutionality of the traffic stop.FN9 Since both parties agreed that the officers had probable cause to stop the vehicles, after witnessing both vehicles run the red light, the Court held that the initial traffic stop was reasonable. Next, the Court looked to the length of the detention to determine whether the timing of the stop was reasonable. On this point, the Court found a previous decision,FN10 in which a detention time of ninety minutes was determined to be unconstitutional, to be controlling. The fact that “the period of detention lasted longer than that which is necessary to issue a basic traffic citation” rendered the stop for the traffic offense unconstitutionally excessive. Likewise, the Court ruled that the detention of Bucalo was “unduly prolonged beyond the appropriate time necessary to complete the purpose of the stop”.FN11

However, the Court used the last two factors to redeem the validity of the search of Bucalo’s car. The third factor the Court considered was whether the officers had “reasonable and articulable suspicion”.FN12  This factor was extremely important in this decision because after the Court concluded that the stop exceeded its “reasonable time” requirement the officers were no longer justified in continuing to detain the defendant unless there was a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity had occurred or was going to occur. Here, the Court pointed to three factors that created a reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred or was going to occur: 1) the call from the hotel management 2) Bucalo claiming that she was leaving one hotel to go to another one and 3) the drug paraphernalia in Duke’s car.FN13Interestingly though, as the dissent points outFN14, neither the first nor the second factor is inherently suspicious standing alone and even the third factor does not cast suspicion on Bucalo because the drug paraphernalia was not found on her or within her belongings!

Still, the Court determined that the this circumstance created a “reasonable and articulable suspicion” such that the officers could continue to hold Ms. Bucalo beyond the extent necessary to issue her a traffic ticket for the traffic violation. Thus, the Court reasoned that the fourth factor, the length of the Terry stop, was reasonable as an extension of the investigation into the drug paraphernalia found in Duke’s car.FN15 The Court held that regardless of the fact that the entire search lasted an hour and forty-five minutes total, the fact that the K-9 Unit arrived within ten minutes of the initial stop, legitimized the entire length of the stop.

Through this decision the Supreme Court of Kentucky has made clear that the existence of non-criminal “suspicious” behavior, a minor traffic offense, and drug paraphernalia being found in another’s car may give a police officer probable cause to hold an individual for up to two hours, even after their K-9 unit has not alerted to drugs on the individual car. The Court reached this conclusion despite the fact that the officers’ suspicions were not confirmed by a search of the hotel room and the officers lacked probable cause to search Bucalo’s car.  The Court’s ruling unfortunately encourages police officers to unconstitutionally detain citizens beyond the scope of their original purpose for stopping the party in order to search for anything that may be incriminating. This ruling effectively gives police officers unrestrained permission to detain and search a citizen until something incriminating is found. If you are not alarmed by this decision; you definitely should be, the next Bucalo could be you!

FN1. Commonwealth v. Bucalo, No. 2012-SC-000123-DG, 2013 WL 6700112 (Ky. Dec. 19, 2013).

FN2. Id. at *1.

FN3. Id.

FN4. Id.

FN5. Id. at *2.

FN6. Id.

FN7. Id.

FN8. Id.

FN9. Id. at 3.

FN10. Epps v. Commonwealth, 295 S.W.3d 807, 813 (Ky. 2009).

FN11. Bucalo, No. 2012-SC-000123-DG, 2013 WL 6700112 at *4.

FN12. Id.

FN13. Id. at *5.

FN14. Id. (Nobel, J. dissenting at *7).

FN15. Id. at *6.