The Nebraska Court of Appeals reversed a Beatrice woman's drug conviction this week, finding that the Beatrice Police Officer who stopped her extended the traffic stop without reason.
"We find no clear error in the district court's factual findings concerning the course of events during the traffic stop. However, we conclude that these facts amounted to a violation of the protections provided by the Fourth Amendment," Chief Judge Michael Pirtle wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel that heard Ronda Thompson's case.
Despite handing Thompson her documents and completing the traffic stop's purpose, the officer continued to stand inside the threshold of the driver's side door of her car and asked additional questions about contraband and if he could look in her car, according to the decision.
Citing Rodriguez v. U.S., a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015 involving a Nebraska case, the Court of Appeals said the officer lacked authority to subject Thompson to further questioning after the purpose of the traffic stop had been effectuated.
"As a result, in the absence of any deescalation to a voluntary encounter, Officer (Derrick) Hosick's inquiries impermissibly extended the duration of the traffic stop," Pirtle wrote.
At about 10 a.m. on Sept. 2, 2019, Hosick stopped Thompson after seeing her fail to stop at a stop sign while he was on patrol in Beatrice.
The officer's body camera showed him asking for her driver's license and vehicle registration, then doing a records check in his cruiser. He gave her a warning for failing to stop and a ticket because her vehicle registration was expired.
About 10 minutes into the stop, he handed her the citation to sign and explained her options in handling it, then she handed the ticket back signed.
While putting Thompson's copy of the ticket together with her documents so she could be on her way, he asked if she had anything illegal in her car, and she said no.
"At this time, he was still positioned within the threshold of the open driver's side door of Thompson's vehicle. As he was handing Thompson her documents, he asked her, 'Do you have any problems if I look in your car to make sure there's nothing illegal in the car?'" Pirtle said.
Thompson said, "No, go ahead. Help yourself."
When he asked her to turn out her pockets, she pulled a small plastic baggie out and upon seeing it said, "That is so not mine."
The residue tested positive for methamphetamine, as did some on a straw that she gave the officer, and Thompson ended up charged with possession.
Her attorney argued the evidence should be suppressed, but it was allowed at her bench trial. And Gage County District Judge Ricky Schreiner found her guilty and sentenced her to probation.
She appealed, which led to Tuesday's decision, reversing her conviction.
"Given there was no reasonable suspicion of unlawful activity afoot, or any concern for officer safety, Officer Hosick’s requests can only be considered a 'fishing expedition,' which courts have deemed as purposeful and flagrant conduct," Pirtle said.
The Court of Appeals sent the case back to Gage County District Court, ruling that Thompson could be retried.
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