U.S. Supreme Court Rules 6-3 That Police Cannot Prolong Traffic Stops in Order to Instigate a Search by a Drug-Sniffing Dog

Posted: April 21, 2015 in Uncategorized
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WASHINGTON, D.C. —Rejecting the idea that some violations of the Constitution are insignificant, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that police may not extend the time needed to conduct an ordinary traffic stop in order to subject the vehicle and its occupants to an examination by a drug-detecting dog unless they have specific reasons to suspect the car is carrying contraband. In its 6-3 ruling in Rodriguez v. United States, the Court held that a police officer violated the Fourth Amendment rights of motorist Dennys Rodriguez and his passenger when, after giving Rodriguez a written warning for a minor driving infraction, he continued to make them wait while a drug-sniffing dog patrolled the exterior of the vehicle.

“While this ruling is certainly a step in the right direction, as long as the courts continue to bend the Constitution to favor the police, there is little to celebrate. After all, the police are still empowered to stop cars based on anonymous tips, carry out warrantless searches of cars using drug-sniffing dogs, and subject Americans to virtual strip searches, no matter the offense,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author ofBattlefield America: The War on the American People. “Whether it’s police officers breaking through people’s front doors and shooting them dead in their homes or strip searching innocent motorists on the side of the road, these instances of abuse are continually validated by a judicial system that kowtows to virtually every police demand, no matter how unjust, no matter how in opposition to the Constitution.”

Battlefield_Cover_300In March 2012, police officer Morgan Struble was on early-morning patrol in Nebraska when he observed a vehicle momentarily veer onto the shoulder of the highway. Struble, who is a K-9 officer and had his dog with him at the time, pulled the vehicle over and upon approaching it determined that the driver was Dennys Rodriguez and that there was a passenger in the front seat. After Rodriguez explained that he had swerved in order to avoid a pothole, Struble obtained Rodriguez’s license, registration and proof of insurance and ran a check to determine if all the paperwork was valid and whether there were any outstanding arrest warrants for Rodriguez. After the officer determined that everything was in order and that neither Rodriguez nor the passenger were wanted, he wrote up a warning ticket for Rodriguez for violating a state law prohibiting driving on highway shoulders. Upon returning to the vehicle and giving Rodriguez back the papers, Struble asked Rodriguez for permission to allow his dog to walk around the vehicle. Rodriguez refused to give permission. Struble then ordered Rodriguez to turn the car off and exit the vehicle. Rodriguez complied and Struble led the dog around the vehicle. Although the dog did nothing during the first pass, on the second pass the dog alerted. Based on this alert, Struble and another officer searched the vehicle and found methamphetamine. This evidence was the basis for a federal indictment against Rodriguez.

Before his trial, Rodriguez moved to suppress evidence of the methamphetamine, arguing that the officer violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures by holding him after all matters related to the driving infraction had been completed. However, Rodriguez’s argument was rejected by the trial court, which ruled that the additional seizure of Rodriguez for the seven to eight minutes the dog sniff took was a “de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights” and was not a sufficient basis to order suppression. The court of appeals affirmed the ruling on Rodriguez’s appeal, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case. In reversing the lower courts’ decisions, the Supreme Court adhered to prior cases holding that a traffic stop can become unlawful in prolonged beyond the time required to meet the mission of issuing a ticket.

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