Supreme Court

Today at SCOTUS: Traffic Stops, Drug-Sniffing Dogs, and Unreasonable Searches and Seizures

When does the use of a drug-sniffing dog transform a lawful traffic stop into an illegal seizure?

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Credit: Library of Congress

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution secures the right of the people to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Yet in its 2005 decision in Illinois v. Caballes, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the police to use a drug-sniffing dog without a search warrant during a routine traffic stop. Why? Because "a dog sniff conducted during a concededly lawful traffic stop that reveals no information other than the location of a substance that no individual has any right to possess does not violate the Fourth Amendment." So long as the traffic stop is not "unnecessarily prolonged" by the use of the drug dog, the Court said, no constitutional harm has been done. But if the stop "is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete that mission," the Court added, the seizure "can become unlawful."

But how much prolonging counts as too much prolonging? At what point in time does the use of a drug-sniffing dog transform a lawful stop into an illegal seizure? During oral argument today in the case of Rodriquez v. United States, the Supreme Court grappled with those questions.

The case arose in 2012 when a Nebraska police officer, who happened to have his K-9 dog in the car with him, stopped Dennys Rodriguez for swerving once towards the shoulder of the road. After questioning Rodriguez and issuing him a written warning for that traffic infraction, the officer sought permission to walk his drug-sniffing dog around the outside of Rodriguez's vehicle. When Rodriguez refused to grant permission, the officer made him exit the vehicle and waited for back-up to arrive. Roughly eight minutes later, with a second officer now on the scene for support, the police dog circled the vehicle and gave an "alert" for illegal drugs. A subsequent search turned up a bag of methamphetamine.

Today's oral argument centered on whether those eight extra minutes "unnecessarily prolonged" the otherwise legal traffic stop and thereby violated Rodriquez's constitutional rights.

Representing Dennys Rodiguez before the Court was Shannon P. O'Connor, a Nebraska public defender. He urged the justices to adopt a bright-line rule in favor of his client. "Once the stop is finished, then he should be allowed to go no matter what the [police officer's] question was," O'Connor asserted.

But several members of the Court quickly rejected O'Connor's stance.

"If we hold that it's okay to have a dog sniff so long as it's before the ticket is issued," observed Justice Samuel Alito, "then every police officer other than those who are uniformed or incompetent will delay the handing over of the ticket until the dog sniff is completed. So what has that—what does that accomplish?"

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg voiced a similar objection. That sounds like "the easiest thing to get around," she told O'Connor. "The police can just say, I'm going to defer that [ticket] a few minutes until the dog sniff occurs. It just seems to me that you're not going to accomplish any protection for individuals if that's your position."

A few minutes later, Justice Department lawyer Ginger Anders took to the lectern in defense of the Nebraska police. "Just because a dog sniff prolongs the traffic stop by some, you know, incremental amount of time doesn't mean that the stop is per se unreasonable," she told the Court.

But that argument was soon called into doubt by Justice Elena Kagan. "You're saying Caballes gives you this extra leeway to detain people even though it is longer than an ordinary traffic stop would take, and I think that's just not right," Kagan told Anders. "It's not some kind of extra leeway for the police officers to do things outside the bounds of the traffic stop itself."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, meanwhile, raised a more fundamental objection to the federal government's case. "We can't keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement," Sotomayor declared. "Particularly when this stop is not incidental to the purpose of the stop. It's purely to help the police get more criminals, yes. But then the Fourth Amendment becomes a useless piece of paper."

Anders, however, refused to budge. "Well," she said, "we think there is a law enforcement interest in officers having some leeway to sequence the stop as they see fit."

A decision in Rodriguez v. United States is expected by June 2015.

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  1. “a dog sniff conducted during a concededly lawful traffic stop that reveals no information other than the location of a substance that no individual has any right to possess does not violate the Fourth Amendment”

    Which is weird, because I thought the 4A applied regardless of whether the search turns up anything. Hell, I seem to recall that evidence of crime found due to an illegal search was inadmissible. If searches are deemed OK based on whether they are successful, or likely to be, then what do we need warrants and exclusionary rule for?

    When Rodriguez refused to grant permission

    Stop right there. What basis was there for ordering him out of his car? Consent to a search authorizes a search, and refusal to consent to a search authorizes a search? Again, what do we need warrants for?

    1. Yeah, I’m not even clear why the officer asked for permission.

      1. In case you’re stupid enough to say yes. Makes it a smidge easier on them.

        1. Does it? Given what’s in the post, he could have just said, “Step out of the vehicle sir, I’m going to have my k9 sniff your vehicle for Contraband”.

          Instead, it was harder to ask permission. He first had to ask permission, expending a certain non-zero amount of energy and time, and then when Rodriguez declined, he then called for backup, had to wait, and then executed the search. He could have reduced these steps to “executed the search”.

    2. “Consent to a search authorizes a search, and refusal to consent to a search authorizes a search? ”

      Now you’re catching on!

  2. “”We can’t keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement,” Sotomayor declared.”

    True dat.

    1. “”We can’t keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement,” Sotomayor declared.”

      Sure they can. They do it all the time.

  3. “we think there is a law enforcement interest in officers having some leeway to sequence the stop as they see fit.”

    That law enforcement interest of course being the confiscation and sale of private citizens’ property.

  4. I have a goldfish that alerts me to the presence of stupid people.

    As the goldfish handler, only I can tell what constitutes an “alert”.

    1. I’m surprised it hasn’t died from exhaustion.

      1. It goes nuts every time I enter the room.

    2. I have an *invisible* goldfish just like that.

  5. No. Just no. Unless you have a warrant to search for drugs in your hand and that was the reason to stop the person in the first place any search for drugs using a dog or any other method is unconstitutional. And if they violate the constitution not only should all charges be dropped they should have to give the drugs back. Obviously drugs should be legal anyways. MFP.

  6. “…a substance that no individual has any right to possess…”

    Let’s just stop right there.

  7. “Supreme Court divided over housing discrimination case”
    http://www.reuters.com/article…..2Q20150121

    From what I read, the hope is that regardless of race-neutrality, a developer can be sued if more green people get homes instead of green and purple people getting the same number.

  8. When does the use of a drug-sniffing dog transform a lawful traffic stop into an illegal seizure?

    that’s easy.

    When the fucking cop fucking says it fucking does. What? You got a fucking problem with that? Fuck you.

  9. “So long as the traffic stop is not “unnecessarily prolonged” by the use of the drug dog, the Court said, no constitutional harm has been done.”

    So they can do any search they want, as long as they’re quick about it?

    And then, note the “unnecessarily”. Well, it takes time to violate your 4th amendment rights. It wasn’t “unnecessarily” prolonged, it was entirely necessary.

    This is like allowing all searches, as long as you don’t wear a green shirt.

    Why do I read these things like they’re going to make sense? SCOTUS will say whatever they want, to get the ruling they want.

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