The U.S. Supreme Court handed down an opinion Tuesday ruling that police cannot extend a routine traffic stop in order to bring a drug-sniffing dog to investigate the car absent any reasonable suspicion that a crime other than the traffic offense is taking place. The decision is a victory for the right of people to refuse police intrusion into their lives and property.
In the case, Rodriguez v. United States, a Nebraska officer pulled over a driver for driving on the shoulder of the highway, a state traffic offense. The officer examined the driver’s license and issued him a warning for the offense, completing all the necessary procedures for the traffic stop. At that point, the officer asked if the driver could stay there while he walked his dog around the driver’s car. The driver said he would not.
The officer then called for another officer to come. When the second officer came, the first officer went back to his car to retrieve the dog, which smelled controlled substances. The officers searched the vehicle and found methamphetamines.
The driver was indicted for federal drugs charges. He moved to suppress introducing the drugs found as a result of the search as evidence, and was denied. He entered a conditional guilty plea, and this case is an appeal of the refusal to suppress the evidence.
Federal prosecutors argued that the stop was warranted, and that bringing the dogs only extended the stop for an additional seven to eight minutes, and therefore constituted a “de minimis” intrusion of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures, an intrusion by the government’s interest in stopping the flow of illegal drugs.
In an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court rejected that argument. Any investigative step taken unrelated to the traffic stop unnecessarily prolonged the stop and was a violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, the Court ruled.
A routine traffic stop is not an arrest, which requires probable cause. An officer may stop the person, speak to him or her about the suspected traffic violation, check the person’s license, check for outstanding warrants, check registration and proof of insurance and write a citation or warning. In Mimms v. Pennsylvania, the Court ruled that an officer could also ask the driver to step out of the car for the officer’s safety in conducting the stop.
If anything during the routine stop causes an officer to have probable cause or reasonable suspicion that another crime is taking place, the officer may be able to detain the person, according to the circumstance. However, that was not the case here, the Court ruled. There was no reasonable suspicion that a drug offense was occurring. The introduction of the drug-sniffing dog was unrelated to the “mission” of the stop, and therefore extended the stop past its permissible point and turned it into an unreasonable seizure.
It is important to realize that if the defendant has said it was acceptable for him to wait for the dog, this case never would have gotten this far. Drivers should consult with an experienced attorney as to their rights when pulled over. An attorney can advise if a person may refuse to answer questions about where they are going and where they have been, or refusing a search request if the officer asks to look in a person’s trunk or glove compartment. Based on this recent Supreme Court ruling, once issued a citation, it appears that a person may ask if the traffic stop has been completed as any further action may represent a detention that must be based on the officer’s reasonable suspicion of some other crime taking place.