Supreme Court says police can't prolong traffic stops to allow for a dog sniff

The US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that prolonging a traffic stop to allow for a sniff of the vehicle by a drug-detecting dog 'violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.'

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
Visitors line up in front of the US Supreme Court to await rulings in Washington, March 31.

A motorist 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, the US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

In a 6-to-3 decision, the high court said that police may not continue to detain a driver and passengers during a roadside traffic stop to facilitate an additional investigation, such as a sniff of the vehicle by a drug-detecting dog.

“We 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,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion.

“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,” she wrote in a nine-page decision.

The ruling puts police on notice that once they stop someone for a valid traffic infraction, a clocks starts ticking that courts can view as an indication that a particular search was reasonable or unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

In a dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the high court’s decision was “unnecessary, impractical, and arbitrary.”

He said in the future, police officers would simply wait to issue a traffic citation until after other aspects of their roadside investigation had been completed.

“Most officers will learn the prescribed sequence of events even if they cannot fathom the reason for that requirement,” Justice Alito said.

He added: “I would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall when police instructors teach this rule to officers who make traffic stops.”

Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy also dissented from the opinion.

The issue arose during a March 2012 traffic stop in Nebraska.

Shortly after midnight, Valley Police 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. The driver, Dennys Rodriguez, said he was trying to avoid a pothole.

The officer 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.

The officer returned to his patrol car and started writing a warning citation. He also called for backup.

After issuing a warning to Rodriguez and returning his documents, the officer then asked the driver for permission to walk a drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle.

Rodriguez refused. The officer instructed Rodriguez to get out of the vehicle and stand in front of the patrol car until a second police officer arrived on the scene.

When the second officer arrived, Officer Struble walked the drug-sniffing dog twice around Rodriguez’s vehicle. Halfway around the second pass, the dog signaled the presence of illegal drugs.

Police searched the vehicle and found a large bag of methamphetamine.

The driver was indicted for possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. His lawyer moved to suppress the evidence on grounds that the police officer had unreasonably extended the traffic stop to facilitate the dog sniff.

The traffic infraction portion of the stop took roughly 22 minutes. It took an additional seven to eight minutes for the second police officer to arrive and for Struble to conduct the dog sniff.

A federal magistrate, a federal judge, and panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the search and allowed the evidence to be used against Rodriguez.  

The appeals court ruled that the seven- or eight-minute extension of the existing traffic stop was a “de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez’s personal liberty.”

In reversing that decision, the high court rejected a government argument that if an officer completes traffic-related investigative tasks quickly, he can earn bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation.

“If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of time reasonably required to complete the stop’s mission,” Justice Ginsburg said.

A traffic stop extended beyond that point for a different purpose would be unlawful, she said.

“The 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.

The justices did not resolve an additional question in the case – whether the police officer had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that would justify the continued detention of Rodriguez (and the dog sniff) after he’d been issued the traffic warning.

The case was remanded to the lower courts to examine that issue.

The case was Rodriguez v. United States (13-9972).

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