Supreme Court Finds Extending Traffic Stops without Cause is Unconstitutional

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On April 21st, the Supreme Court held in Rodriguez v. United States that the police may not prolong a traffic stop for inspection (in this case, by drug-sniffing dogs) beyond the time ‘reasonably required’ to handle the mission for which the stop was originally made.

K9 Police Dog

Extending a traffic stop to call in a K9 police dog, like this one, has been ruled unconstitutional without reasonable suspicion. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

While this may not seem like a major concern for most drivers, the more you know about your rights, the better you are able to assert those rights during one of the most frequent encounters with law enforcement: traffic stops. If a police officer pulls over a car for a routine traffic violation, such as speeding or running a red light, the officer cannot delay the driver forever based only on a hunch that drugs may be in the vehicle.

The Case at Issue

In March 2012, driver Dennys Rodriguez was pulled over by Officer Morgan Struble for swerving onto the shoulder of a highway in Nebraska. Struble checked Rodriguez’s license, insurance, and registration and issued the driver a written warning. Officer Struble then asked Rodriguez if he could search his vehicle, to which Rodriguez said “no.” Despite being denied, Struble called for backup.

After waiting approximately eight minutes, a second police officer arrived on the scene and Struble lead his police dog around the car for inspection. The dog alerted the officer of drugs and a further search revealed a bag of methamphetamine in the vehicle. Rodriguez pled guilty to drug possession, but later appealed on the basis that the evidence was gathered during an illegal search.

All in all, approximately 29 minutes passed between the time Struble stopped Rodriguez and the time the dog alerted the officers to the presence of drugs. The issue centers around whether this was an unreasonable delay.

The Rodriguez case holds that even the brief extension of eight minutes is not allowed. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her ruling, “the tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop, and attend to related safety concerns,” In this case, the ‘mission’ was complete when Officer Struble finished issuing the written warning.

While police have the ability to use routine traffic stops to seek out evidence of other crimes, they cannot extend a traffic stop even for a minute without a new justification for extending their search. For example, if the officer were to smell marijuana in the vehicle while issuing a citation, that would justify extending the stop.

The Road Ahead

Dissenters argue the Rodriguez ruling could have potentially negative and unanticipated results. Different traffic stops may require different lengths of time for completion and police officers may simply wait to issue a traffic citation until after other aspects of their roadside investigation have been completed.

The legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska, Amy Miller, said the decision will influence how all police and law enforcement agencies in Nebraska and across the country use drug-sniffing dogs.

“Police departments across America just got a warning that the dogs are not appropriate for fishing expeditions,” Miller said. “If you have zeroed in with suspicion about someone because of other aspects — the driver’s behavior, a tip, you are executing a search warrant and trying to locate where the drugs are — drug dogs may still have a place in the law enforcement tool kit. But for a random, routine traffic stop where there is no indicator, I think it is clear: Police need to stand down with the use of dogs from here on out.”

If you or a loved one was recently charged with a driving related crime in NY, contact Rosenblum Law today at 888-883-5529. Our skilled traffic lawyers and criminal defense attorneys will defend your constitutional rights and fight to have your charges dismissed.

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This post was written by Adam H. Rosenblum Esq.

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