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How Long Can the Police Detain Me

This one time, at band camp, the cops came and arrested everyone for underage drinking and drugs. Before the arrests, we were detained for at least an hour, even though only 52% of the people were drinking the sketchy pineapple vodka and 4.7% were ingesting pot cubes in unforeseen places.

You may have encountered a situation like this, or at least heard a similar story. Few interactions in life provoke profound memories like contact with law enforcement. The thought of being held against your will and potentially arrested often leaves a lasting impact on a person’s memory. These encounters also commonly trigger questions about the scope of police authority and whether they abided by constitutional authority.

Recently, in State v. Hager, the Minnesota Court of Appeals addressed the question of how long the police can detain someone, or their property, during a routine traffic stop without probable cause. Legal issues often turn on the ever-popular reasonableness standard. But here, the court also used a more definitive time period to assist its determination of reasonableness: ninety minutes.

In Hager, a Minnesota State Trooper stopped a vehicle for speeding. Upon seeing blaze orange hunting gear and a large gun case in the backseat, the trooper asked the driver, Hager, if there was a gun in the case. Hager responded affirmatively. From past encounters, the trooper thought Hager might be a felon, which would likely make him ineligible to possess a firearm. The trooper then went back to his squad car and made several phone calls to try and find out if Hager was ineligible. During this time, the trooper went back and forth to Hager’s vehicle to tell him that he is just trying to find out if he is ineligible. After one hour and forty-five minutes, and still no satisfactory answer, the trooper decided to arrest Hager for ineligible person (felon) in possession of a firearm.

Hager’s defense attorney moved to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop. The district court denied the motion and this appeal followed. Importantly, Hager did not challenge the basis for the initial seizure, or the expansion of it. He just challenged the duration of the seizure, which was one hour and forty-five minutes.

In reversing the district court, the court of appeals relied on United States v. Place, a U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1983. In Place, the Court noted It has “never approved a seizure of the person for the prolonged 90-minute period involved here.” Such binding U.S. Supreme Court precedent made it difficult for the court in Hager to approve a longer detention period of 105 minutes. Furthermore, the court in Hager reasoned the trooper could have taken possession of the firearm sooner, let Hager go, and investigate the matter further. Such reasoning, however, would fail to align with Place. In Place, the Court determined the detention of personal property, or a person’s “effects” under the Fourth Amendment, enjoy the same protections as a person for constitutional purposes.

The Hager court also cited Florida v. Royer for the ruling that “investigative methods employed should be the least intrusive means reasonably available to verify or dispel the officer’s suspicion in a short period of time.” The “short period of time” can certainly be argued based on any individual case. But the brighter-line rule of 90 minutes adopted by Place makes the analysis easier.

For now, stay away from ingesting pot cubes. And if you are curious about whether the police acted unreasonably and detained you too long without probable cause, then look at Place and Hager. Or, give us a call for a free consult to determine “how long can the police detain me?”

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He does not condone drinking sketchy alcohol concoctions or ingesting marijuana at band camp. For a free consultation, please contact our office at 612-547-3199 or email at: ambroselegal@icloud.com.  

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