In Clark the defendant was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over for several traffic violations, including driving without headlights at night. The driver was using his mother's vehicle, who was not present. The officer ran typical computer checks and determined the driver had several prior convictions for drug offenses. The officer asked the driver questions about his criminal history, his whereabouts that evening, and to whom the vehicle was registered and where. Although the driver could not find the registration card, he had his mother on the phone who, along with the driver, were trying to answer the officer's questions. After some confusion the officer repeatedly told the pair he was asking these questions to determine if the driver was lying and continued to ask about his criminal history. After the officer determined the driver had recently been released from prison he had him step out of the car to its rear where he began asking questions about his passenger, the defendant. The officer then went to the passenger window and asked the same questions of the defendant - his answers about how long he's known the driver and where they'd been that night were inconsistent with those given by the driver. The officer then observed an odor of marijuana from the passenger side and directed the defendant to step out for a pat down search. At that point the defendant admitted he had a firearm in his waistband.
Clark was indicted on a 922(g)(1) count and moved to suppress the firearm on the grounds the stop was impermissibly prolonged. The District Court agreed. Specifically, the District Court found the officers questions regarding the driver's criminal history, of which the officer already knew the answers based on his computerized checks, were not aimed at ascertaining it. And that line of questioning prolonged the stop. Further, it failed to find anything "suspicious" about the driver's behavior or "inappropriate."
The Court of Appeals upheld the District Court's findings. In contrast to its recent opinion in United States v. Green, 897 F.3d 173 (3d. Cir. 2018), also a Fourth Amendment case involving a Rodriguez issue where a denial of suppression was upheld, the Court determined that not all police inquiries are alike. In this case, inquiries about the driver's criminal history, which were aimed at determining if he was legally permitted to drive, was tied to the purpose of the stop or if the traffic stop had ended before that line of questioning began. In this case, the Court found the officer's computerized checks verified information he gave which was the vehicle belonged to his mother. Once the officer was able to confirm that information, the Court determined that was sufficient to demonstrate the driver had the authority to drive the vehicle and further questioning did nothing but prolong the stop.
Of note, the Court of Appeals did not tackle how its opinion in Clark and the recent opinion in Green, which had different panels, reconcile with one another. Both cases involved traffic violations with prolonged stops, involved driver's with criminal histories, and involved typical road-side questioning by police.