[I]n this case, at all times Officer Little was working on the purpose of the stop … At each stage of Officer Little’s interaction with Mr. Thobe, he learned information that reasonably required further investigation such as Mr. Thobe’s driving privileges and his license plate issue … we do not find that the trial court erred by denying Mr. Thobe’s suppression motion.
State v. Thobe
2023 – Ohio – 1431
Third District Appellate Court
Auglaize County, Ohio
May 1, 2023
Mr. Aaron Thobe brings this appeal from the November 9, 2022, judgment of the Auglaize County Common Pleas Court sentencing him to an indefinite prison term of eight to twelve years after Mr. Thobe pled no contest to, and was convicted of, Possession of Methamphetamine. On appeal, Mr. Thobe argues that the trial court erred by denying his suppression motion. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.
Officer Jacob Little of the St. Mary’s Police Department testified that on Saturday June 11, 2022, he was conducting surveillance on Mr. Thobe’s residence. Officer Little indicated that his department had received information that narcotics were being used and/or sold at the residence. In fact, another law enforcement agency had recently arrested an individual who claimed that he had been selling a substantial amount of methamphetamine to Mr. Thobe.
Officer Jacob Little was conducting surveillance at 618 West North Street, St. Mary’s, Ohio. Mr. Aaron Thobe left the residence, was stopped by Officer Little and was occurred next led to Mr. Thobe’s arrest, conviction and appeal.
Further, Mr. Thobe’s vehicle had recently been stopped and searched by the Mercer County Drug Task Force, and during that search, officers located “multiple hidden compartments that [Mr. Thobe] had manufactured, and electric power drill batteries that he had hollowed out.” No drugs were found during the earlier search by the Mercer County Drug Task Force.
Officer Little testified that shortly after 10 p.m. on June 11, 2022, Mr. Thobe left his residence in a blue Dodge truck followed by two other known drug users in a separate vehicle. Officer Little decided to follow Mr. Thobe and indicated it was his plan to stop Mr. Thobe’s vehicle, but he wanted to observe two traffic violations before he initiated a traffic stop. Officer Little testified that he liked to have two violations before stopping a vehicle because he had “been burnt before.”
Too Loud of a Muffler and Too Dim of a Light Over Rear Plate
As he followed Mr. Thobe, Officer Little indicated that he could not see Mr. Thobe’s license plate light within fifty feet, and he observed that the muffler on Mr. Thobe’s vehicle could be heard over a block away. Based on these infractions, Officer Little initiated a traffic stop of Mr. Thobe’s vehicle at approximately 10:18 p.m. The traffic stop was recorded on Officer Little’s body camera.
While Officer Little was in the process of coming to a stop, he radioed dispatch and requested the assistance of a canine officer from New Bremen. Officer Little then promptly got out of his vehicle and approached Mr. Thobe’s truck. As he approached, Mr. Thobe’s loud muffler could be heard on the body camera recording.
Officer Little made contact with Mr. Thobe and told Mr. Thobe the reason why he was stopped. Mr. Thobe stated that he was aware of his loud muffler, that he was in the process of taking care of it, and that he had already been cited for the loud muffler recently. [Mr. Thobe’s freedom was one license plate light and new muffler between him and eight to twelve years in prison!]
Officer Little then requested Mr. Thobe’s identification and his insurance card. The next several minutes of the traffic stop consisted of Mr. Thobe looking for his paperwork while he conversed with Officer Little. Mr. Thobe told Officer Little that he was operating under driving privileges and that he had paperwork for his privileges as well. Mr. Thobe explained that he had been convicted of an OVI in Auglaize County and that there was an “interlock” device in his vehicle.
Mr. Thobe handed Officer Little a paper that referenced his driving privileges while he looked for his other documents. Officer Little read the paper and stated that it was sufficient to establish Mr. Thobe’s driving privileges, even if it was not the official paper that Mr. Thobe was searching for. Mr. Thobe then took a few moments to pull up his insurance on an app on his phone. Officer Little acknowledged the proof of insurance, then went back to his car and opened a pad and started writing a warning for the loud muffler. At this point, less than six minutes had elapsed since Officer Little put his vehicle in park for the traffic stop.
Written Warnings and a Plate that Doesn’t Match
While Officer Little was working on the written warning, he checked the license plate for Mr. Thobe’s truck and the plate came back to a 2006 black Mercedes sedan. Another officer was on the scene speaking with Mr. Thobe, so Officer Little radioed the other officer and told him to ask Mr. Thobe about the plate discrepancy. Officer Little then continued writing the written warning for just over a minute until he got out of his vehicle to assist the other officer who was speaking with Mr. Thobe. When Officer Little got back to Mr. Thobe’s truck, the other officer on the scene was flipping through Mr. Thobe’s paperwork for his black Mercedes sedan, which was another vehicle Mr. Thobe owned. The officers asked Mr. Thobe for his truck registration, and he produced that paperwork.
Officer Little asked the other officer to run the VIN on the Dodge truck while he finished writing the written warnings. Officer Little got back to his vehicle approximately ten minutes after he parked it behind Mr. Thobe’s truck and continued writing the written warnings.
Seventeen Minutes Between the Stop and the Canine Alert
Officer Little finished his first written warning approximately twelve minutes after parking behind Mr. Thobe. He then began writing his second written warning, and before that written warning for the license plate light was complete, the canine officer from New Bremen arrived on scene and conducted the free-air sniff of Mr. Thobe’s vehicle. The dog alerted on the driver’s side-door just over seventeen minutes after Officer Little parked his vehicle behind Mr. Thobe, and approximately four minutes after Mr. Thobe’s VIN was checked. Mr. Thobe’s vehicle was subsequently searched and over 100 grams of methamphetamine were located in a hidden compartment.
Trial Court Denies Mr. Thobe’s Motion to Suppress
Mr. Thobe sought suppression of the methamphetamine, arguing that Officer Little unconstitutionally prolonged the stop to allow time for the canine officer to arrive at the scene. The trial court overruled Mr. Thobe’s motion, finding the officer’s testimony credible in that: “The officer did indeed have probable cause to stop for each of the two violations. He was within his rights to issue two citations or two warnings. The time he took to complete those written warnings was reasonable.”
While the trial court noted the potential for constitutional abuses by officers, it determined that there was no constitutional violation here. The trial court concluded that the “negligible time involved of less than seventeen minutes from stop to sniff while the written warnings were still being written” was reasonable.
The Rodriguez Moment Explained
Mr. Thobe challenges the trial court’s determination on appeal, arguing that Officer Little extended the stop by stalling in completing the written warnings. In support of his argument, Mr. Thobe cites Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 350-351, (2015), wherein the Supreme Court of the United States held:
[A] police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures. A seizure justified only by a police – observed traffic violation, therefore, becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket for the violation. Rodriguez at 350-351 [The moment at which the traffic stop concludes is often referred to as the ‘Rodriguez Moment’.]
Mr. Thobe argues that under Rodriguez, the Eighth District Court of Appeals has found that an officer impermissibly delayed a traffic stop by stalling before he wrote a citation in order to provide time for a canine officer to arrive, even though only 9 minutes elapsed between the traffic stop and the dog sniff. See State v. Harris, 2021-Ohio-3200. He contends that the seventeen minutes here would fall far outside of that window, and that we should find Harris persuasive.
Contrary to Mr. Thobe’s argument, Harris is readily distinguishable on its face because the officer in that case admitted to delaying writing a citation to allow time for the drug-sniffing dog to arrive. Thus, the officer in Harris was not consistently working on the purposes of the stop. By contrast, in this case, at all times Officer Little was working on the purpose of the stop.
Officer Little’s Jumbo Actions
In fact, the recording of the incident actually shows that Officer Little took actions to expedite the stop, which further distinguishes Harris. For example, when Officer Little learned that Mr. Thobe’s plate was showing that the vehicle should have been a 2006 black Mercedes sedan, Officer Little radioed the other officer on the scene and told him to ask Mr. Thobe about the registration/plate issue so he could continue writing the written warnings. In addition, at a later point, Officer Little asked the other officer on scene to check the VIN on the Dodge truck while Officer Little worked to finish written warnings. Thus there was no delay akin to Harris.
Moreover, it is important to emphasize that under Rodriguez, “The critical question is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff adds time to the stop.”Rodriguez at syllabus. There is no indication in this case that time was added to the stop.
At each stage of Officer Little’s interaction with Mr. Thobe, he learned information that reasonably required further investigation such as Mr. Thobe’s driving privileges and his license plate issue. “Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission during a traffic stop typically includes checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Rodriguez at 349.
After reviewing the record and the applicable legal authority, we do not find that the trial court erred by denying Mr. Thobe’s suppression motion. The trial court’s factual findings were supported by the record and after a de novo review of the trial court’s legal determinations, we find no error. Therefore, Mr. Thobe’s assignment of error is overruled.
State v. Thobe, 2023 – Ohio – 1431 was issued by the Third District Appellate Court on May 1, 2023 and is binding in the following Ohio Counties: Allen, Auglaize, Crawford, Defiance, Hancock, Hardin, Henry, Logan, Marion, Mercer, Paulding, Putnam, Seneca, Shelby, Union, Van Wert and Wyandot.
Information for this article was obtained from State v. Thobe, 2023 – Ohio – 1431.
- This case is demonstrative of high-quality law enforcement wherein St. Mary’s Police Officer Jacob Little did not simply rely on the traffic infractions to delay the detention of Mr. Thobe. Rather, Officer Little, documented each factor that continued to lead him from a small amount of information to a significant amount that permitted him to detain Mr. Thobe longer. Eventually the canine alerted and the search was lawfully conducted.
- Law enforcement must be cautious of the ‘Rodriguez Moment’, established in Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348, 350-351, (2015). The Rodriguez Moment is when the mission of the traffic stop has ended and the traffic violator must be released. Officers cannot detain traffic violators merely on a gut feeling. Officers must obtain additional information or evidence to prolong the detention of the traffic violator beyond the original purpose … or mission of the stop. Otherwise, when the mission of the traffic stop has been completed, any further detention is unlawful. If at that time, incriminating evidence is obtained it will most likely be considered a fruit of the poisonous tree and excluded.
- For more information on canine cases see: https://www.objectivelyreasonable.com/category/canine/
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