On appeal from The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania ">

Please E-mail suggested additions, comments and/or corrections to Kent@MoreLaw.Com.

Help support the publication of case reports on MoreLaw

Date: 12-02-2021

Case Style:

United States of America v. Christian Burrus

Case Number: 20-1521

Judge: David James Porter


On appeal from The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania

Plaintiff's Attorney: United States Attorney’s Office

Defendant's Attorney:

New York, NY - Best Criminal Defense Lawyer Directory


New York, NY - Criminal defense lawyer represented defendant charged with felon in possession of a firearm.

On July 23, 2018, Officer Hess of the Penn Hills Police Department was on a
routine traffic patrol in a high-crime area of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania. He checked the
license plate number of a blue Nissan Maxima using the National Crime Information
Center (“NCIC”) database. The results revealed that the vehicle’s registration was
expired and that the vehicle’s owner, Daquela Donald, had an expired driver’s license.
Officer Hess followed the vehicle and shortly thereafter pulled the vehicle over.
The vehicle had three occupants: a female driver, a male in the front passenger
seat, and a female passenger in a rear seat. Officer Hess asked Donald, who was driving,
if she had identification, and she responded that she did not. She also could not produce
the car’s registration, any identification card, or an insurance certificate. Officer Hess
asked if anyone in the car had identification and heard no answer. He then took the names
of the passengers. The male passenger told Officer Hess that his name was Christian
Burrus and provided his date of birth. The female passenger told the officer that her name
was Tomieka Maddox. Donald told Officer Hess that someone would come pick up the
vehicle. Officer Hess thanked Donald for her honesty and returned to his police cruiser.
Officer Hess recognized Burrus upon approaching the vehicle because he recalled
that a wanted poster with his name and photograph was posted in the police station
assembly room over a year earlier, indicating that a warrant for Burrus’s arrest was
pending at one time. The officer remembered that narcotics detectives were involved in
posting the photograph and believed that Burrus had been wanted for a firearm or
narcotics charge. In addition, Officer Hess noticed that Burrus appeared very nervous,
was sweating profusely, and would not make eye contact with him. Indeed, the officer
testified that he had never encountered a passenger as nervous as Burrus during a traffic
Once back inside his vehicle, Officer Hess ran an NCIC check on Burrus, which
revealed that he had a suspended driver’s license and an active warrant for his arrest for a
probation violation. After a backup unit arrived, Officer Hess called dispatch and
confirmed that the warrant was active. The process of running the NCIC check on Burrus
and confirming that the warrant was active took less than three minutes.
Officer Hess then arrested Burrus. He walked to the passenger side window and
asked Burrus if he had any weapons on him. Burrus did not reply. Officer Hess then
asked Burrus to step out of the vehicle. After Burrus complied, the officer placed
1 The District Court credited Officer Hess’s testimony that he remembered a wanted
poster with Burrus’s name and photograph and that Burrus appeared very nervous during
the stop. After careful review of the record, we defer to the District Court’s decision to
credit the officer’s testimony and accept as true the facts it found.
handcuffs on him and conducted a pat down search, which revealed a firearm in Burrus’s
waistband. Officer Hess’s subsequent investigation revealed that the firearm was stolen
and that because Burrus had a prior conviction for manufacture, delivery or possession
with intent to deliver a controlled substance, he was not permitted to possess a firearm.
Burrus was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He filed a
motion to suppress the firearm as the product of an unreasonable search and seizure,
which the District Court denied on two independent grounds. First, it took the position
that an officer’s taking the time to conduct a brief warrant check on a passenger during a
traffic stop does not constitute a deviation from the traffic stop’s mission—for which
reasonable suspicion would be needed—because a warrant check helps ensure the
officer’s safety during the stop. Thus, Officer Hess could lawfully perform a warrant
check on Burrus even though that check caused the stop to take more time than it
otherwise would have. In the alternative, the court concluded that even if Officer Hess
did deviate from the mission of the traffic stop, he had reasonable suspicion to perform
the warrant check on Burrus in light of the totality of the circumstances. After the District
Court denied Burrus’s suppression motion, Burrus entered a conditional guilty plea. This
timely appeal followed.2
We review the denial of a motion to suppress under a mixed standard of review.
United States v. Green, 897 F.3d 173, 178 (3d Cir. 2018). The District Court’s factual
2 The District Court had subject-matter jurisdiction under 18 U.S.C. § 3231. We have
appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.
findings are reviewed for clear error, and its legal determinations are reviewed de novo.
Id. We may affirm on any basis supported by the record. Id.
The parties dispute whether the July 2018 traffic stop, which was “lawful at its
inception,” was unreasonably extended in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Illinois v.
Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407 (2005). “An unreasonable extension occurs when an officer,
without reasonable suspicion, diverts from a stop’s traffic-based purpose to investigate
other crimes.” Green, 897 F.3d at 179. The Supreme Court explained in Rodriguez v.
United States that a traffic stop’s purpose is “to address the traffic violation that
warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns.” 575 U.S. 348, 354 (2015)
(citation omitted). “[T]asks ordinarily . . . tied to the mission of a traffic stop . . . include:
‘checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants
against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.’”
United States v. Garner, 961 F.3d 264, 271 (3d Cir. 2020) (quoting Rodriguez, 575 U.S.
at 355). An officer “may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful
traffic stop,” but “may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop” absent reasonable
suspicion. Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 355. We call the time at which a stop is measurably
extended—“when tasks tied to the traffic stop are completed or reasonably should have
been completed”—the “‘Rodriguez moment.’” Garner, 961 F.3d at 270. If an officer
measurably extends a stop, we must “assess whether the facts available to [the officer] at
[the Rodriguez moment] were sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion” of criminal
activity to determine whether the extension violated the Fourth Amendment. Green, 897
F.3d at 179.
Applying this legal framework, the District Court concluded that the warrant
check was permissible because conducting a warrant check on a passenger is a
“negligibly burdensome precaution[]” to protect the officer rather than a deviation from
the mission of the stop. App. 16 (quoting Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 356). The court also
found that even if the warrant check did prolong the traffic stop, Officer Hess had
reasonable suspicion that warranted doing so.
We assume without deciding that the warrant check on Burrus measurably
extended the traffic stop. Having done so, we conclude that Officer Hess’s conduct did
not contravene the Fourth Amendment because reasonable suspicion justified the warrant
To expand the scope of a traffic stop beyond its initial purpose, an officer must
have “a reasonable, articulable suspicion of criminal activity.” United States v. Givan,
320 F.3d 452, 458 (3d Cir. 2003). Reasonable suspicion “is more than ‘a mere hunch . . .
[but] considerably less than . . . a preponderance of the evidence, and obviously less than
. . . probable cause.’” Green, 897 F.3d at 183 (alterations in original) (quoting Navarette
v. California, 572 U.S. 393, 397 (2014)). It must be evaluated under the totality of the
circumstances and “cannot be defeated by a so-called ‘divide-and-conquer’ analysis,
whereby each arguably suspicious factor is viewed in isolation and plausible, innocent
explanations are offered for each.” Id. (quoting District of Columbia v. Wesby, 138 S. Ct.
577, 589 (2018)). We have also “recognize[d] the particular ability of law enforcement
officers, based on training and experience, to make inferences from and deductions about
the cumulative information available to them that might well elude an untrained person.”
Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). “Reasonable suspicion depends on both the
‘information possessed by police and its degree of reliability.’” Garner, 961 F.3d at 271
(quoting Alabama v. White, 496 U.S. 325, 330 (1990)).
With these principles in mind, we have no difficulty concluding that reasonable
suspicion was present at the earliest Rodriguez moment: when Officer Hess returned to
his vehicle to conduct the warrant check on Burrus. The officer recalled that Burrus had
previously had an active warrant in Penn Hills for a firearms or narcotics charge, and did
not specifically recall whether the warrant had been cleared by an arrest. This supports
the reasonableness of his decision to perform a quick warrant check—even if that check
measurably extended the stop. As the Supreme Court has stated, “where police have been
unable to locate a person suspected of involvement in a past crime, the ability to briefly
stop that person, ask questions, or check identification in the absence of probable cause
promotes the strong government interest in solving crimes and bringing offenders to
justice.” United States v. Hensley, 469 U.S. 221, 229 (1985). And “though a criminal
record, much less an arrest record, is not sufficient to establish reasonable suspicion, it is
a valid factor.” Green, 897 F.3d at 187. By the same token, Burrus’s being wanted for
arrest about a year before the traffic stop is germane to whether the officer had reasonable
suspicion. Accordingly, we may consider an officer’s knowledge of an outstanding
warrant within our reasonable-suspicion analysis. See United States v. Tellez, 11 F.3d
530, 532–33 (5th Cir. 1993) (holding that a police officer had reasonable suspicion
justifying a brief investigatory stop based on the officer’s knowledge of an outstanding
warrant for the defendant’s arrest).
Other facts also support the District Court’s finding of reasonable suspicion.
Officer Hess observed that Burrus was sweating heavily and would not make eye contact
with him. Indeed, Officer Hess had never seen a passenger as nervous as Burrus during a
traffic stop. “[N]ervous, evasive behavior is a pertinent factor in determining reasonable
suspicion.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 124 (2000). Burrus also could not produce
identification and was in a car being driven by an unlicensed driver. Finally, the traffic
stop occurred in a high-crime area of Penn Hills.
We do not conclude that any of these facts, standing alone, would rise to the level
of reasonable suspicion. But, considering the totality of the facts presented here, we
uphold the District Court’s reasonable-suspicion finding

Outcome: For the foregoing reasons, we will affirm the District Court’s judgment

Plaintiff's Experts:

Defendant's Experts:


Find a Lawyer


Find a Case