Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that police officers cannot hold people at traffic stops to wait for drug-sniffing dogs to arrive at the scene without reasonable suspicion.
In a victory for the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police cannot prolong a traffic stop just to wait for drug dogs to arrive unless the police have reasonable suspicion. The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, explained that police stops exceeding the time necessary to handle the matter for which the stop was originally intended violates a person’s right to be free from unreasonable seizures.
You can read the Supreme Court ruling here: Rodriguez v. United States No. 13-9972.
The Rodriguez case stemmed from a traffic stop in Nebraska in which police stopped a vehicle for erratic driving (police witnessed the car drift onto the shoulder of the highway). The officer questioned the occupants of the vehicle, ran a records check, and at that point, said Ginsberg in the majority opinion, the traffic stop should have been over, because the officer adequately handled the matter for which the stop was performed. Instead, the officer had a drug dog sniff the perimeter of the vehicle. The drug dogs signaled that they found something, so police searched the vehicle and found a bag of meth. Involving the drug dogs resulted in an eight minute delay to the stop.
Although Rodriguez motioned to suppress the evidence based on Fourth Amendment violations, the court decided that, per a 2005 case Illinois v. Caballes, police were justified in using the drug dogs because it only prolonged the stop briefly.
How long is too long to wait at a traffic stop?
Unless a police officer has reasonable suspicion, they cannot detain a person at a traffic stop longer than the minimum time required to complete the task the stop was intended for – “de minimus.” For example, in the Rodriguez case, the driver was stopped for swerving out of his lane. The stop should have been over and the driver released after the officer finished questioning the occupants and running the check. According to the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, the officer in this case did not have reasonable suspicion to believe the driver or passenger committed any other violation, requiring the officer to let them go after he gave them the written warning.
Time will tell how the lower courts decide to judge these cases in light of the recent Rodriguez ruling.