Supreme Court Holds No Dog Sniffs After Completed Traffic Stops

dog sniffing
dog sniffing
Drug sniffing dogs are a powerful law enforcement tool used by many city police departments. But may they be used after an already completed traffic stop? No, says a divided Supreme Court. (photo: LA Times)

In a 6-3 decision in Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court held that a dog sniff conducted after a completed traffic stop violates the Fourth Amendment. In a dissent, Justice Alito describes the Court’s holding as “unnecessary, impractical, and arbitrary,” and suggests savvy officers can skirt it.

Officer Struble pulled over Dennys Rodriguez after he veered onto the shoulder of the highway and jerked back on the road. Officer Struble ran a records check on Rodriguez, then questioned his passenger and ran a records check on the passenger and called for backup, and next wrote Rodriguez a warning ticket. Seven or eight minutes passed between Officer Struble issuing the warning, back up arriving, and Officer Struble’s drug-sniffing dog alerting for drugs. Rodriguez argued that prolonging the completed traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Court agreed. It concluded that exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the traffic stop was made violated the Fourth Amendment. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, relied on Illinois v. Caballes where the Court upheld a suspicionless dog search conducted during (not after) a lawful traffic stop. In that case the Court stated that a seizure for a traffic stop “become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete [the] mission” of issuing a ticket for the violation. While officers may lengthen stops by checking a driver’s license and inspecting a vehicle’s registration and proof of insurance, those measures are taken to ensure that the vehicles on the road are operating safely. Likewise, officers may lengthen a stop by asking a driver to exit the vehicle for the officer’s safety. A dog sniff, however, is not aimed at officer or highway safety—it is aimed at discovering illegal drugs.

Justice Ginsburg ends her opinion by stating that the critical question “is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket… but whether conducting the sniff prolongs – i.e., adds time to – the stop.” This statement seems to be contradicted by – or at least avoidable per – Caballes, as Justice Alito suggests in his dissent: “The rule that the Court adopts will do little good going forward. It is unlikely to have any appreciable effect on the length of future traffic stops. Most officers will learn the prescribed sequence of events even if they cannot fathom the reason for that requirement. I would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall when police instructors teach this rule to officers who make traffic stops.”

About the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

 
Lisa Soronen
Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center