Supreme Court limits officers’ ability to conduct other criminal investigations during routine traffic stop

In another show of strange bedfellow bipartisanship on criminal justice issues, the Supreme Court issued an opinion last week that protects a defendant’s constitutional rights during traffic stops.

The case, Rodriguez v. United States, concerns a defendant and passenger in Nebraska who were stopped by police after he drove onto the shoulder. Through the course of a few minutes, the officer took documentation from the defendant, went to his patrol car to check for warrants, returned to the defendant’s car, expressed his intention to issue a warning, returned again┬áto the patrol car, called a second officer to the scene, then walked back to the defendant’s vehicle to ask if he could run a drug dog around the vehicle (the officer was in a K-9 unit and had a dog in the patrol car ready to go). When the defendant refused the officer’s request, the officer instructed him and his passenger to exit the vehicle, then walked the dog around the vehicle twice. On the second pass the dog alerted to contraband.

Relying on a line of Eight Circuit cases holding that an officer can “incrementally” increase the length of a traffic stop since the “de minimus” intrusion is outweighed by a legitimate public interest of pursing a separate, unrelated investigation, the magistrate judge denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the results of the drug sniff. Adhering to the same precedent, the district court and appellate courts affirmed.

The Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Ginsburg rejected the reasoning of the Eight Circuit cases and held that when an officer finishes the necessary business of a traffic stop, any further inquiry or search that is unrelated to the goals of the initial stop is unconstitutional. This means that even if a drug sniff takes only a few minutes and only “incrementally” increases the time of the stop, it is nevertheless unlawful. The rule is simple: anything actions taken by the officer that do not reasonably relate to officer or roadway/traffic safety are impermissible absent other facts articulated by the officer that raise suspicions that some other crime might have been committed.

Justice Ginsburg left open for the lower court to consideration whether other articulable facts existed in the record that could have justified the officer’s decision to walk the drug dog around the vehicle.

In Justice Thomas’ dissent, he focuses on the fact that the initial traffic stop was lawful and that the stop was only 29 minutes long. Thomas reasoned that since a 30-minute traffic stop was normal for a single officer dealing with a stopped vehicle with multiple passengers, it decision to walk the drug dog around the vehicle did not meaningfully intrude on the driver’s Fourth Amendment Rights against unreasonable seizures.

Thomas’ argument doesn’t seem persuasive to me. Officers shouldn’t get “bonus time” just because they quickly take of the business at hand — checking for warrants and issuing tickets. Whether finishing the stop in 7 minutes or 30, once it’s done the officer can’t continue the seizure of the person.

Going forward, I expect to see prosecutors elicit testimony from officers about why they wanted to further investigate. Watch for more records with officers describing furtive movements, the smell of marijuana, etc, that precede the officers’ decision to run a drug dog during or after a traffic stop. Look for the Rodriguez case to be distinguished in the future.


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