Collective knowledge can justify a traffic stop

In a recent Wilson County case, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals applied the doctrine of collective knowledge to find that an officer had reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop.  Previously, the Tennessee Supreme Court had used the doctrine in determining when an officer has probable cause to arrest a suspect:

When determining whether the police possessed probable cause, the courts should consider the collective knowledge that law enforcement possessed at the time of the arrest, provided that a sufficient nexus of communication existed between the arresting officer and any other officer or officers who possessed relevant information. Such a nexus exists when the officers are relaying information or when one officer directs another officer to act. State v. Echols, 382 S.W.3d at 278; 2 [Wayne R.] LaFave[, Search and Seizure: A Treatise on the Fourth Amendment] § 3.5(a)-(c) [(5th ed. 2012)]. It matters not whether the arresting officers themselves believed that probable cause existed. State v. Huddleston, 924 S.W.2d 666, 676 (Tenn. 1996) (“[An officer’s] subjective belief that he did not have enough evidence to obtain a warrant is irrelevant to whether or not probable cause actually existed.”).  

State v. Bishop, 431 S.W.3d 22, 36 (Tenn. 2014).  Writing for the panel, Judge Camille R. McMullen reasoned that since the concept of collective knowledge applies when determining whether an officer has probable cause to arrest a suspect, it is logical that this doctrine also applies when determining whether an officer has reasonable suspicion to stop a suspect.

In this case, a detective received information from a confidential informant that the defendants were driving to the Smithville, Tennessee area to receive 50 to 100 pounds of marijuana.  The informant had given accurate information in the past and had participated in several controlled drug buys in unrelated cases.  Furthermore, the detective inquired into how the informant knew about the drug shipment, and the informant stated that he had lived with the defendants and would often travel to the defendants’ “stash house.”  Afterwards, an investigator with the Nashville Police Department executed a search warrant on the defendants’ residence and found 44 to 47 pounds of marijuana.  Several months later, the informant told the detective that one of the defendants was going to exchange a half-pound of marijuana.  Surveilling the area, the officers observed the defendant exchange a plastic bag with an individual, and after stopping the individual, the officers found a half-pound of marijuana in a plastic bag.  Based on the foregoing, the detective obtained a warrant to install a tracking device in one of the defendant’s vehicles.  Monitoring the vehicle, the detective saw that the defendant was driving 78 mph in a 70 mph zone and directed an officer to stop the defendant.  The officer then stopped the vehicle for marijuana possession and speeding.

At this point, you may ask, “If the officer saw the defendant speeding, why does it matter that he had reasonable suspicion for marijuana possession?”  It matters because the permissible time, manner, and scope of a lawful traffic stop is partially determined by the reason for the stop.  In other words, a stop can be more intrusive when it’s based on reasonable suspicion for marijuana possession than when it’s based on reasonable suspicion for speeding.

Here, even though the officer did not actually have reasonable suspicion of marijuana possession, the detective that ordered the stop did have reasonable suspicion of marijuana possession.  Since there was a sufficient nexus between the two (e.g., the detective ordered the officer to stop the defendant), the detective’s knowledge was imputed to the officer, giving the officer reasonable suspicion for marijuana possession.  That allowed the officer to conduct a more intrusive stop than would have been allowed for speeding.

State v. Kelley, No. M2016-01425-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. Aug. 28, 2017)

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