Newark, NJ- In a recent and notable ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court strengthened Fourth Amendment protections by ruling police must have reasonable suspicion to hold a motorist for a drug-dog search during routine traffic stops.
In Rodriguez vs. U.S., justices were tasked with determining: When it is reasonable to hold a motorist long enough to conduct a search with a drug-sniffing dog? Once the business of the traffic stop has been completed, can law enforcement continue to detain a motorist for a dog-sniff?
In a prior decision, the high court established K-9 searches are constitutional, but only if that search can be conducted within a reasonable time. Rodriguez vs. U.S. questioned “how long can that stop last and not be considered an “unreasonable search?” As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court’s opinion: “The critical question is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff adds time to the stop.”
In the 6-3 decision, justices established that detaining a motorist longer than a traffic stop requires for a dog search, without reasonable suspicion is a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights. Once an officer has checked a motorist’s license and other pertinent documents, searched for warrants and issued the citation, the purpose of the traffic stop is done and law enforcement cannot detain a motorist for a drug-dog sniff if it unnecessarily prolongs the stop and they lack probable cause. The court affirms it is unconstitutional for an officer to use a traffic stop for an “unrelated” investigation.
In the Court’s opinion Justice Ginsburg wrote, “Police may not prolong detention of a car and driver beyond the time reasonably required to address the traffic violation.” And, according to the opinion, a “dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission.”
The case centered on the arrest of Dennys Rodriguez who was initially pulled over by a K-9 officer in Nebraska because he drifted onto the highway shoulder. Rodriguez explained he swerved to avoid a pothole. The officer conducting the stop checked Rodriguez’s driver’s license, insurance and registration, his passenger’s driver’s license, did a records check and then issued a citation.
After issuing the warning, the officer asked if he could search the car, but Rodriguez declined. The officer, though he had already issued the citation, did not consider Rodriguez free to leave, the court’s opinion states, and waited for a second officer to arrive with the K-9 to conduct a drug search. Overall, Rodriguez was detained for nearly 30 minutes.
On a second trip around Rodriguez’s vehicle, the dog alerted to the presence of drugs giving police probable cause to search the car. During the search police found 50 grams of methamphetamine and charged Rodriguez with trafficking, a federal offense.
Rodriguez moved to have the drug evidence suppressed, arguing that how it was obtained was a violation of his Fourth Amendment rights. He argued that the arresting officer prolonged the traffic stop absent of reasonable suspicion for the drug search.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit ruled the extra delay of “7 or 8” minutes was not “unreasonable” and upheld Rodriguez’s conviction. The April 21st decision from the U.S. Supreme Court now establishes that without reasonable suspicion law enforcement cannot detain a person longer than necessary to obtain evidence of a drug crime.
This is a victory for our protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and emphasizes that police must have probable cause to conduct a search. But, unfortunately, even with affirming rulings such as this one, rights of motorists and suspected criminal offenders are routinely violated.
As a Newark criminal defense attorney, I understand how important your constitutional rights are and will work to ensure those rights are respected. If you are facing criminal charges you can rely on me to build an effective defense on your behalf so you have better chance of avoiding conviction. Contact my New Jersey office and we can talk about how to handle your case.