Call off the Dogs: US Supreme Court Discusses K9 Use During Traffic Stops

by: Matt Newburg

04/22/2015 11:45 AM EST
Tags:
  criminal  
  criminal law  
  news  

An individual who has been pulled over for a traffic violation may not be detained by police longer than necessary for the officer to issue a ticket or warning for the alleged driving infraction.  That is according to the United States Supreme Court.

Shortly after midnight in March 2012, Officer Morgan Struble saw an SUV veer slowly onto the shoulder of the highway and then jerk back onto the road. The officer pulled the vehicle over and questioned the driver about why he swerved to which Dennys Rodriguez, replied that he was trying to avoid a pothole.  Struble examined Mr. Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance and checked to see if there were any outstanding warrants. The officer then returned to the vehicle and asked the passenger, Scott Pollman, for his license. He also asked where they’d been and where they were going. Struble went to his patrol car and started writing a warning citation and for some unexlicable reason, called for backup.  Rodriguez, the driver of the car, was issued a citation and after the officer returned his documents, the officer then asked for permission to walk a drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle.  Rodriguezdeclined the officer's request.  The officer then ordered Mr. Rodriguez out of his call and ordered him to stand in front of the patrol car until backup arrived. 

When the second officer arrived, the Officer walked the drug-sniffing dog around the car and the dog signaled the presence of illegal drugs.  Police searched the vehicle and found a large bag of methamphetamine.  The Court took note that the traffic infraction portion of the stop took roughly 22 minutes and an additional seven to eight minutes for the second police officer to arrive and for Struble to conduct the dog sniff.

The government's absurd argument that if an officer completes traffic-related investigative tasks quickly, he can earn bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation was quickly shut down by the Supreme Court.  Justice Ginsburg said  “[i]f an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of time reasonably required to complete the stop’s mission. . . A traffic stop extended beyond that point for a different purpose would be unlawful.". She then provided some guideance to the lower courts.  Justice Ginsburg said [t]he critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, as Alito supposes, but whether conducting the sniff ‘prolongs’ – i.e., adds time to – the stop,” she wrote.

In upholding an individual's right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure,Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg clearly established the position of the court.  She wrote “[w]e hold that 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,”. She continued, “[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. . . ”

Click the case name to see the opinion: Rodriguez v. United States

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