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State v. Adan

Supreme Court of North Dakota

November 21, 2016

State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
Abdullahi Ahmed Adan, Defendant and Appellant State of North Dakota, Plaintiff and Appellee
Semereab Haile Tesfaye, Defendant and Appellant

         Appeals from the District Court of Burleigh County, South Central Judicial District, the Honorable Bruce A. Romanick, Judge.


          Justin J. Schwarz, Assistant State's Attorney, for plaintiff and appellee; submitted on brief.

          Laura C. Ringsak, for defendant and appellant Abdullahi Ahmed Adan; submitted on brief.

          Kyle M. Melia, Bismarck-Mandan Public Defender Office, for defendant and appellant Semereab Haile Tesfaye; submitted on brief.


          VandeWalle, Chief Justice.

         [¶ 1] Abdullahi Ahmed Adan and Semereab Haile Tesfaye appealed the judgments entered on conditional pleas of guilty to the charges of possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or deliver. We affirm, concluding there was reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop and that the district court properly denied their motions to suppress evidence gathered as a result of the continued detention.


         [¶ 2] While driving westbound on I-94, Officer Steven Clark observed a maroon, four-door car traveling east at approximately 73 mph in a 75 mph zone. The vehicle appeared to weave in its lane and Officer Clark noticed that the vehicle was from out of state. After turning around to follow it, Officer Clark noted that the vehicle had slowed down to approximately 70 mph. From several car lengths behind, Officer Clark saw the driver reach into the backseat of the vehicle and appear to place a blanket or jacket over something in the backseat. Officer Clark pulled alongside the vehicle and observed the driver with his hands at ten and two on the wheel, staring intently forward, and a passenger who appeared to be sleeping. While alongside the vehicle, Officer Clark observed the driver moving the corner of his mouth, as if he were trying to hide his conversation with the passenger. However, not seeing any traffic infractions, Officer Clark stopped following the vehicle.

         [¶ 3] Although he did not see any traffic infractions, Officer Clark remained suspicious of the vehicle and called Officer Steve Edwards to relay his suspicions and tell him to be on the lookout for the vehicle. While talking with Officer Edwards, Officer Clark also relayed all of the information he observed while following the vehicle. Officer Edwards located the suspicious vehicle and observed it speeding and following too close to the vehicle in front of it. Based on these traffic violations, Officer Edwards initiated a traffic stop.

         [¶ 4] The driver pulled off to the side of the road and left his blinker on. Officer Edwards identified the driver as Adan and the passenger as Tesfaye. During the traffic stop, Officer Edwards observed a blanket, covering approximately half of the backseat, an air freshener, a bottle of Ozone scent spray, a global positioning system ("GPS"), eye drops, a lighter, and an energy drink in the vehicle.

         [¶ 5] Officer Edwards asked Adan to come back to his patrol vehicle to answer a few questions. During this time, Adan appeared nervous to Officer Edwards; Adan touched his face, licked his lips, and his shoulders quivered. Adan confirmed that the vehicle was a rental and explained that he had rented the vehicle in St. Cloud and used it to travel to Fargo and then to Watford City to drop a friend off for work. Officer Edwards stated that he did not observe any luggage consistent with this length of a trip, but acknowledged that he did not look in the trunk of the car for any luggage.

         [¶ 6] Officer Edwards also noted that during his interactions with Tesfaye, Tesfaye appeared to be evasive, never looking him in the eye. When questioned about the travel plans, Tesfaye replied that he and Adan were traveling from the Williston area. Tesfaye was also unable to recall the name of the passenger Adan had dropped off, even though they had ridden together for a couple of days.

         [¶ 7] Through a records check, Officer Edwards discovered that Tesfaye was recently placed on probation for possession of methamphetamine. After this discovery, Officer Edwards asked Tesfaye if there was anything illegal in the vehicle and whether there was any methamphetamine or marijuana. Tesfaye answered, "No, " to each inquiry, but broke eye contact with Officer Edwards when asked about the presence of marijuana. During the course of the traffic stop, Officer Edwards did not smell the odor of marijuana nor did he observe any drug paraphernalia.

         [¶ 8] After the traffic stop, Officer Edwards issued Adan a warning and asked if Adan had time to answer a few more questions; Adan agreed. Officer Edwards asked a few questions about Adan's trip before asking permission to search his vehicle and have a dog walk around it. Adan did not consent. Officer Edwards called dispatch to send a K-9 to his location. Forty-five minutes later, a K-9 arrived and signaled on the presence of narcotics. After a search of the vehicle, officers seized over two pounds of marijuana.


         [¶ 9] When reviewing a district court's denial of a motion to suppress, we defer to the trial court's findings of fact. State v. Kitchen, 1997 ND 241, ¶ 11, 572 N.W.2d 106. However, questions of law are fully reviewable on appeal. State v. Bartelson, 2005 ND 172, ¶ 7, 704 N.W.2d 824. Whether the facts support a finding of reasonable articulable suspicion is a question of law, and thus, is fully reviewable by this Court. State v. Fields, 2003 ND 81, ¶ 6, 662 N.W.2d 242.

         [¶ 10] The parties do not dispute the fact that the initial stop of Adan and Tesfaye's vehicle was proper. As we have previously stated, "traffic violations, even if considered common or minor, constitute prohibited conduct and, therefore, provide officers with requisite suspicion for conducting investigatory stops." State v. Stadsvold, 456 N.W.2d 295, 296 (N.D. 1990). In this case, Officer Edwards observed the vehicle speeding and following too close to the vehicle in front of it. When Officer Edwards observed these traffic infractions, he had probable cause to believe the law was being violated and, thus, properly initiated a traffic stop. See Whren v. U.S., 517 U.S. 806 (1996) (holding that the officer's subjective intent for stopping the vehicle was not relevant in determining the validity of the traffic stop).

         [¶ 11] During a valid traffic stop, "an officer can temporarily detain the traffic violator at the scene of the violation." Fields, 2003 ND 81, ¶ 8. The duration of the investigatory detention may continue "as long as reasonably necessary to conduct [the officer's duties resulting from the traffic stop] and to issue a warning or citation." Id. (citing United States v. Jones, 269 F.3d 919, 925 (8th Cir. 2001)). When the original purpose of the traffic stop is complete, the officer must have a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot to continue the detention. Fields, at ¶ 10. Any further detention, without reasonable suspicion, violates the traffic offender's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Id.

         [¶ 12] When deciding whether reasonable suspicion exists, this Court looks at the totality of the circumstances, applies an objective standard, and takes "into account the inferences and deductions that an investigating officer would make that may elude a layperson." Fields, 2003 ND 81, ¶ 13. "The question is whether a reasonable person in the officer's position would be justified by some objective manifestation to suspect the defendant was, or was about to be, engaged in unlawful activity." State v Kenner, 1997 ND 1, ¶ 8, 559 N.W.2d 538 (quoting State v. Smith, 452 N.W.2d 86, 88 (N.D. 1990)). Additionally, information obtained by one officer may be used by another to establish reasonable suspicion if the first officer conveyed the information to the second officer. Ell v. Dir., 2016 ND 164, ¶ 10, 883 N.W.2d 464; State v. Miller, 510 N.W.2d 638, 643-44 (N.D. 1994).


         [¶ 13] On appeal, Adan and Tesfaye argue that after they were given a written warning for their driving conduct, Officer Edwards lacked a reasonable and articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot to continue to detain them.

         [¶ 14] The district court found that Officer Edwards relied upon a number of different factors in establishing a reasonable, articulable suspicion. Such factors include: the information relayed to him by Officer Clark, the nervousness of both Adan and Tesfaye, the different accounts of the trip's destination, items he observed in the vehicle, Tesfaye's criminal history, and the fact the vehicle was a rental.

         A. Nervousness

         [¶ 15] An individual's nervousness during a traffic stop "is a pertinent factor in determining reasonable suspicion." State v. Heitzmann, 2001 ND 136, ¶ 15, 632 N.W.2d 1 (citing Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 120 (2000)). However, nervousness alone is insufficient to establish a reasonable suspicion. Fields, 2003 ND 81, ¶ 19.

         [¶ 16] Here, both Adan and Tesfaye exhibited signs of nervousness. Adan's first signs of nervousness occurred when Officer Clark was following the vehicle. Officer Clark observed Adan driving rigidly with his hands gripped tightly at ten and two and placing a blanket or jacket in the backseat as if attempting to cover something up. Officer Clark also thought it was suspicious that Adan avoided eye contact with him and looked like he was talking out of the side of his mouth to Tesfaye, even though Tesfaye appeared to be sleeping. After disengaging the vehicle, Officer Clark called Officer Edwards and informed him of his observations. Because these observations were properly relayed to Officer Edwards, this Court may use Officer Clark's observations in its determination of whether Officer Edwards had a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

         [¶ 17] Adan also appeared nervous throughout his interactions with Officer Edwards. During the duration of the traffic stop, Adan left his blinker on. Officer Edwards believed this to be unusual and a sign of high stress, as most people turn the blinker off to get rid of the blinking sound. When Adan followed Officer Edwards back to the patrol vehicle, Adan was licking his lips, touching his face, and quivering. These actions made Officer Edwards believe that Adan was nervous.

         [¶ 18] Tesfaye also exhibited different instances of nervousness throughout his interactions with Officer Edwards. When Officer Edwards first approached the vehicle on the passenger side, Tesfaye would not make eye contact; Tesfaye kept looking down toward the floor mat or at his feet and was generally evasive. Tesfaye did make eye contact with Officer Edwards later, when Officer Edwards questioned him about the presence of illegal substances in the vehicle. When asked if there was anything illegal or methamphetamine in the vehicle, Tesfaye held eye contact with Officer Edwards and ...

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