More on Prolonged Detentions: Careful Not to Stray from the ‘Mission of the Traffic Stop’


During a traffic stop for an observed traffic violation, an officer has about 10 or 11 minutes to complete the “mission of the traffic stop.” Using that time, however, to conduct an unrelated criminal investigation, including the use of a drug sniffing dog around the detainee’s vehicle, constitutes an illegally prolonged detention. 


During the early afternoon of March 16, 2018, an undercover officer told an Anaheim police officer, who had a drug-sniffing K-9 partner named “Titan,” that the driver of a specific pickup had been at the Tampico Motel and had “acted suspiciously,” whatever that means. The officer knew that drug trafficking was a problem at that motel. With this knowledge, he located the truck and followed it in his marked police car when he (conveniently) observed the driver of the truck make a quick lane change, cutting off another vehicle. (Veh. Code, § 22107, unsafe lane change.) Initiating a traffic stop, the officer, with his body camera activated, contacted the driver (defendant Gyorgy), the sole occupant of the truck.  

The officer asked for, and received, Gyorgy’s driver’s license. The officer then questioned Gyorgy about all kinds of things except the traffic infraction: whether he was on probation or parole, whether he was a narcotics or sex registrant, whether he had any needles or sharp objects in his truck, whether he had any weapons or drugs in the truck. In response, Gyorgy told the officer that he was in fact a registered sex offender, but denied everything else. Asked about prior arrests, Gyorgy claimed that he had two arrests, one for a theft, but both nonviolent felonies. Still without addressing the traffic violation, the officer asked Gyorgy whether he was current on his sex offender registration requirements. After Gyorgy claimed that he was, the officer asked him where he was registered and where he lived. Gyorgy provided a long explanation about how the house he had been living in was sold after his mother passed away and that he was having difficulties with his family and inheritance issues, necessitating him staying in local motels, including the Tampico, thus living in Anaheim for only two days.  

Now four or five minutes into the traffic stop, the officer ordered Gyorgy out of the truck so that he could pat him down for weapons, for “officer safety purposes.” Gyorgy complied. But instead of patting him down right away, the officer directed him to sit on the curb and wait until another officer arrived. As they waited, Gyorgy asked why he had been pulled over and what was going on. The officer told him: “I’ll get to that. I’ll tell you shortly,” or words to the effect.  

A second officer arrived at the scene between the 5th and 6th minutes of the traffic stop. It was at this point that the officer finally told Gyorgy that he had been stopped because of an unsafe lane change, describing how another vehicle had to slam on its brakes. When asked why he had been told to get out of his truck, the officer simply told him: “For officer safety.” The officer then patted Gyorgy down for weapons and found nothing.  

Now 7½ minutes into the traffic stop, the officer told Gyorgy he was going to conduct a dog sniff around his truck. When Gyorgy refused to give the officer permission to use the dog to search the truck’s interior, the officer told defendant that it didn’t matter, because he had the right to conduct a dog sniff. Gyorgy had his own dog, a small Maltese, in the truck, which the officer allowed Gyorgy to take out after he objected to the officer doing it himself. The officer then had Gyorgy and his Maltese sit again on the curb as the officer, again over Gyorgy’s objections, opened the driver’s door, turned on the ignition, and rolled up the driver’s window (apparently a half-open window being a hazard to Titan as Titan sniffed the truck).  

The officer then had Titan sniff the exterior of the truck, eventually leading to Titan alerting at the driver’s door. It was now 11 minutes and 45 seconds into the traffic stop. Letting Titan into the truck, the dog was unable to pinpoint exactly where there might be drugs. But based upon the original alert, the officers searched the truck and found methamphetamine, methamphetamine paraphernalia, an unloaded handgun, an empty magazine, and six live rounds. A records check was then conducted, resulting in information to the effect that defendant was in fact a felon and prohibited from possessing firearms. He was arrested.  

Gyorgy was never written a citation for the totally forgotten illegal lane change. Charged in state court with a pile of drug- and gun-related offenses, his motion to suppress all the evidence was denied. Convicted after a jury trial of the misdemeanor charges of possession of methamphetamine and paraphernalia (but for an unknown reason, not the gun-related charges), Gyorgy appealed.