Third District Appellate Court of Illinois decision of People v. Roa

In the recent Third District Appellate Court of Illinois decision of People v. Roa, the third district again addressed an issue that seems to surface more regularly than one would think in criminal cases: that issue being how long of a detention is too long by officers when making a routine traffic stop. Obviously, the only reason these cases become controversial and of any constitutional significance is because the search leads to the detection of contraband, ordinarily drugs or weapons. The reason I have chosen this case for the subject of one of my blogs is because of a recent case handled by my office wherein we filed a Motion to Suppress believing that a detention of one of our clients lasting for more than 20 minutes was an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of both the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions.

The facts in Roa do not appear to be as supportive of a motion to suppress as some other cases recently argued before reviewing courts asked to decide such issues, nor the case recently handled by my office, but it does touch upon issues in controversy in such cases.

In Roa, Andres Roa was stopped by an Illinois State Trooper for speeding 71 miles per hour in a 65 mph speed zone; obviously making it a valid stop. The State Trooper making the stop in this particular case was also a certified drug interdiction instructor and the drug interdiction coordinator for his district.
After the trooper stopped Roa’s vehicle and approached, he advised Roa that he was merely going to issue him a written warning and asked Roa for his license and registration. After advising Roa that he was going to issue the warning, the trooper, Sergeant Floyd Blanks, struck up a conversation with Roa, including asking him where he was traveling from and to. Sergeant Blanks testified that Roa exhibited more physical stress than most people, appeared unusually nervous, and “out of sorts”, avoiding eye contact when being questioned by the trooper.

As is ordinarily the case, at some point, Sergeant Blanks asked for consent to search Roa’s vehicle, which Roa agreed to.

One of the things that raised the level of suspicion of Sergeant Blanks and Trooper Thulen, who later arrived on the scene to assist, was that after Roa had consented to the search, Roa had claimed that he was an antiques dealer and was transporting antiques in the trunk. Despite this, no antiques were discovered by the troopers in the trunk. It also appeared to the officers that the air bag area had been tampered with or modified in some way.

The search by Sergeant Blanks and Trooper Thulen lasted 20 minutes, which included a fiberoptic scope. Surprise, surprise, during the course of their search, they located a total of 24.2 pounds of cocaine, packaged in 11 separate packages.

Roa’s defense counsel filed a motion to suppress the cocaine, alleging that the police had expanded the scope of the traffic stop into a drug investigation without enough probable cause to do so. Obviously the problem with such an argument in this particular case is that Roa appears to have consented to the search ultimately leading to the discovery of the drugs within a relatively short period of time after having been stopped.

Relying on the Supreme Court of the United State’s recent decision of Muehler v. Mena, 544 U.S. 93, 161 L. Ed. 2d 299, which the Illinois Supreme Court held overruled portions of People v. Gonzalez, 204 Ill.2d 220 (2003), and the Illinois Supreme Court case of People v. Cosby, 231 Ill.2d 262 (2008), the third district ruled the alteration of the nature of the stop argument no longer valid when determining whether or not a lawful stop has converted to a constitutionally impermissible one. According to the Roa court, the duration of the stop prong previously employed by the courts in their previous decisions is now the only basis for challenging the constitutionality of such stops. The third district also held that based on its readings of Mendenhall and Cosby that the holding in People v. Brownlee, 186 Ill.2d 501 (1999), that an officer is always free to request permission to search, is still good law.

To determine when someone has been impermissibly detained, the Roa court held that the reviewing court should look to the Mendenhall factors including (1) whether there was a threatening presence by several officers; (2) whether the officer displayed a weapon; (3) whether there was some physical touching by the officer; and (4) whether the language or tone of voice used by the officer indicated that compliance with the officer’s request was compelled. Roa (citing Mendenhall, 446 U.S. at 544, 64 L. Ed. 2d at 509.

But hold on just a moment? Surely the third district wasn’t saying that these four factors alone from the Mendenhall decision are the sole exclusive factors the trial courts should look at when determining whether or not the detention of a motorist has become an unreasonable seizure for constitutional purposes. As Justice McDade, dissenting in the case, suggested, Cosby itself states that “It is true that the Mendenhall factors are not exhaustive.”  Cosby, 231 Ill.2d at 281, 898 N.E.2d at 615. (emphasis added).

Obviously dissents don’t carry the day, but nevertheless, this is merely one district’s analysis of prolonged detentions, and I believe a poor one at that. Can we really pigeonhole each detention to decide whether a prolonged stop becomes an unlawful detention for constitutional purposes merely by looking at the Mendenhall factors? Is it even possible?

As previously stated, our office filed a Motion to Suppress based on a stop that lasted more than 20 minutes in duration, after the officer advised our client that she was merely giving him a warning. It is a case we likely will appeal, and which I believe, has far better facts than those in Roa. However, with the courts routinely chipping more and more of our constitutional rights away, do we really have a shot at winning? We’ll see.

As an Illinois Criminal Defense Attorney, handling misdemeanors, felonies, DUI’s, and traffic cases in Mclean and surrounding counties, I cannot stress enough the importance of hiring an attorney knowledgeable of such issues if you are looking to hire someone to represent you or a loved one. Obviously, there is so much at stake, including each of our constitutional rights.


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