It is unconstitutional for police, attempting to conduct a roadside shakedown, to hold a motorist without reasonable suspicion while waiting for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive on the scene. This is the latest Supreme Court ruling, which was handed down on Tuesday, that clarifies tactics that prolong routine traffic stops without clear suspicion are a breech of the Fourth Amendment.
The verdict was reached in a vote of 6 to 3, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that such actions were a clear violation of the shield that is supposed to protect Americans from unreasonable seizures. This is an important ruling because it insists that law enforcement must establish a reasonable platform to call out the dogs before coming to the completion of the traffic stop. In other words, cops are required to determine grounds for suspected drug activity prior to issuing a driver a ticket or warning for the initial offense.
“We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures,” the ruling states. “A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, ‘becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission’ of issuing a ticket for the violation.”
The case surrounding this notable verdict, Rodriguez v. United States, suggests that a Nebraska police officer spotted a Mercury Mountaineer swerve onto the shoulder of Highway 275 for a couple of seconds and then quickly pull the vehicle back into the proper lane. This is when officer Morgan Struble decided to flip on the siren and pull the driver, Dennys Rodriguez, over for inspection.
It was nothing more than a routine traffic stop: the officer questioned the driver and the passenger, Scott Pollman, and then ran their driver’s licenses and registration to see if there were any outstanding warrants. The two men told the officer that they had taken a trip to Omaha to check out a Ford Mustang that was for sale, and they were now headed back to Norfolk. When the officer asked Rodriguez why he crossed the shoulder, he said that it was to avoid hitting a pothole. By the end of the traffic stop, which went on for nearly 30 minutes, Rodriguez was issued a written warning – giving him the right to leave.
However, before officer Struble would allow the men to go, he told Rodriguez that he wanted to take his drug-sniffing dog, Floyd, for a walk around the vehicle, just to make sure there were no illegal narcotics stashed away inside. When he refused, the officer ordered him to turn off the ignition and step outside the vehicle.
During the first pass, Floyd did not alert. It was not until the second time around, about 8 minutes after the warning was issued, that the dog sounded off to the presence of illegal drugs, which a search later determined to be a substantial amount of methamphetamine.
In court, Rodriguez moved to suppress the evidence based on the grounds that officer Struble used a drug-sniffing dog without establishing reasonable suspicion, but previous Supreme Court decisions, specifically a 2005 ruling, determined that prolonging a traffic stop between “7 to 10 minutes” did not hold any constitutional significance” and in no way violated the Fourth Amendment.
Rodriguez was forced to take a guilty plea and sentenced to five years in prison.
However, in a dissention of the 2005 verdict, Justice Ginsburg determined that previous decisions on this matter only pertained to investigations that “did not lengthen the roadside detention,” and suggested, in this particular case, that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to further detain Rodriguez.
“An officer, in other words, may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop,” she wrote. “But… he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.”
Yet, as stated by the dissenting comments of Justice Alito, law enforcement often prefer to alter the sequence of their shakedown tactics in an attempt to protect their own safety. In this case, he said, Officer Struble wanted to conduct a search but he did not feel comfortable doing so until backup arrived.
“It is reasonable for an officer to believe that an alert will increase the risk that the occupants of the vehicle will attempt to flee or perhaps even attack the officer,” he said.
Justice Alito, along with Justice Clarence Thomas, finds the presence of an air freshener in Rodriguez’s vehicle was enough reasonable suspicion to conduct a search, and that the officer simply opted to alter the protocol to protect his safety.
The verdict, Alito suggests, will not have a significant impact on how police conduct traffic strops in the future. He believes most officers will learn to adapt to the necessary sequence to ensure a citation is issued at the end.