U.S. Supreme Court Rules Police May Not Extend Duration of Traffic Stop to Wait for Drug-Sniffing Dog

The U.S. Supreme Court issued an important ruling restricting the ability of police to use drug-sniffing dogs during traffic stops. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. ___ (2015). The court had previously ruled that the use of a drug-sniffing dog during a traffic stop does not inherently violate the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005). The Rodriguez decision holds that police may not unreasonably extend the duration of a traffic stop without probable cause. The ruling is important but still allows police numerous potential loopholes.

The case began when a police officer observed the defendant’s vehicle veer onto the shoulder of a state highway in Nebraska, in violation of state law. Neb. Code § 60-6,142, cf. Tex. Transp. Code § 545.058. He pulled the defendant over and questioned him and his passenger. The defendant stated that he swerved onto the shoulder to avoid a pothole in the road. After running a records check on the defendant, the officer issued a written warning.

The officer acknowledged that the purpose of the stop was “out of the way” at that point. Rodriguez, slip op. at 2. Instead of allowing the defendant to leave, however, he asked if the defendant would agree to let the officer’s drug dog walk around his vehicle. The defendant refused, and the officer ordered him and the passenger out of the car. The officer made two passes around the vehicle with the dog. On the second pass, it alerted to drugs, which turned out to be methamphetamine.

The dog’s alert occurred approximately seven or eight minutes after the officer issued the written warning to the defendant. In a motion to suppress, the defendant argued that the officer lacked probable cause to prolong the traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff. The district court denied the motion, and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court vacated the Eighth Circuit’s decision in a 6-3 ruling, with the majority opinion written by Justice Ginsburg. Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito each wrote dissenting opinions. The court cited its decision in Caballes, when it held that a stop based on a traffic violation may not be “prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of investigating that specific violation.” Id. at 1, citing Caballes, 543 U.S. at 407. It held to this precedent, finding that the officer violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights by prolonging the stop, even for only a few minutes.

The court identified the “mission” of a traffic stop as “address[ing] the traffic violation that warranted the stop.” Rodriguez at 5. Once that mission is complete, the officer’s authority for the stop ends, unless probable cause exists to support further investigation. If an officer can identify some type of probable cause, a drug-sniffing dog search could be justified. Justice Thomas noted in his dissent, for example, that the officer noticed “an overwhelming odor of air freshener coming from the vehicle,” which he thought might be an effort to cover the smell of drugs. Rodriguez, J. Thomas dissent at 5.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

If you are facing charges for an alleged criminal offense in west Texas, you need the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney who knows the law and understands the court system. Michael J. Brown has fought for the rights of west Texas defendants at the state and federal levels for more than 20 years. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our team.

More Blog Posts:

Police Use of Surveillance Technology Without Warrants Prompts Court Challenges, Legislation, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 15, 2015
Police Violated Resident’s Fourth Amendment Rights by Lying About 911 Calls to Gain Entry to Homes, Court Rules, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 15, 2015
Court Rules that State May Compel Fingerprint, but Not Passcode, Access to Cell Phone, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, January 8, 2015

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