On April 21, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued another opinion relating to drug-sniffing dogs on traffic stops. In Rodriguez v. United States,1 the Court held that dogs cannot be used after a routine traffic stop has been completed if no reasonable suspicion exists regarding the presence of drugs in the vehicle.
Just after midnight on March 27, 2012, a Valley, Neb., police officer observed a vehicle being driven by Dennys Rodriguez slowly swerve onto the shoulder of the highway for one or two seconds and then jerk back onto the roadway. The officer, traveling with his canine companion, pulled the vehicle over at 12:06 a.m.
The officer approached the vehicle and asked Rodriguez why he had driven onto the shoulder. Rodriguez replied that he was avoiding a pothole. After obtaining Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, the officer asked Rodriguez to accompany him to his squad car. Rodriguez asked if he was required to do so, and after the officer said he was not, Rodriguez remained in his vehicle.
After running a check on Rodriguez’s records, the officer returned to the vehicle and spoke to the front seat passenger. After asking the passenger for his driver’s license, the officer returned to his squad car, completed a records check on the passenger, and requested a backup officer. The officer then wrote a warning ticket for Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder of the road, a violation of Nebraska law.
The officer returned to Rodriguez’s vehicle a third time to issue the written warning. He returned the documents obtained from the occupants and explained the warning to Rodriguez. The time of the completion of the stop was about 12:28 a.m. According to the officer, that is when he “got all the reason[s] for the stop out of the way[,] . . . took care of all the business.”2
The officer then asked Rodriguez if he could walk his dog around the vehicle. Rodriguez said no. The officer then asked Rodriguez to turn off the ignition, step out of the vehicle, and stand in front of the vehicle while waiting for the backup officer. Rodriguez complied. Once the deputy arrived, the officer walked his dog around the vehicle. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs and a search of the vehicle turned up a large bag of methamphetamine. The time between the conclusion of the traffic stop until the dog alerted was seven to eight minutes.
Rodriguez was indicted for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine in Nebraska federal court. He moved to suppress the evidence on the ground that the officer had prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion to conduct the dog sniff. The Magistrate Judge denied Rodriguez’s motion to suppress. Although the magistrate found that the officer had no probable cause to search the vehicle independent of the dog sniff, and the officer had no reasonable suspicion to detain Rodriguez once the warning was issued, he nonetheless concluded that case precedent allowed the officer to extend the stop by seven to eight minutes because the dog sniff was only a de minimus intrusion on Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights and therefore was permissible.
The District Court Judge adopted the magistrate’s findings and conclusions and denied Rodriguez’s motion to suppress. The court stated that in the Eighth Circuit, “dog sniffs that occur within a short time following the completion of a traffic stop are not constitutionally prohibited if they constitute only de minimus intrusions.”3 With that, Rodriguez was sentenced to five years in prison.
On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court holding the seven to eight minute delay resembled delays that the court had previously found to be acceptable. As such, the appellate court declined to address the question of whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to continue the traffic stop after he issued Rodriguez the written warning.
Supreme Court Opinion
The Supreme Court took on this case to resolve the division among the lower courts on the question whether it is permissible for law enforcement officers to extend an otherwise completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, to conduct a dog sniff. In a 6–3 opinion written by Justice Ginsburg, the Court said no.
Relying on two previous cases decided within the last 10 years, the Court affirmed that the Fourth Amendment permitted certain unrelated investigations that did not lengthen the initial traffic stop.4 That being said, the Court cautioned in Cabellas, that the traffic stop “can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission” of issuing the ticket.5 This was also repeated in Johnson where the Court warned that the seizure is lawful only “so long as [unrelated inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop.”6
The Court went on to state that officers are permitted to do certain things during a traffic stop such as checking the driver’s license, determining whether outstanding warrants exist, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. In other words, the mission of traffic stops is to ensure that vehicles on the roadway are being operated safely and responsibly. But what happens when officers ask drivers and passengers to exit the vehicle?7 Are those requests being done for the purpose of ensuring vehicles are being operated safely and responsibly?
Of course not. But, the Court acknowledged that dog sniffs, on the other hand, go beyond what is necessary to conduct a traffic stop and to address officer safety–they are conducted to detect evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.
The Court also rejected the government’s argument that it should be the overall reasonableness of the length of the stop that matters. Assume that an officer completes a stop very quickly because he has state of the art technology at his fingertips and then he waits for a canine. Shouldn’t this be allowed because the entire stop was not unreasonably long although part of the stop involved waiting for the dog? The Court said “no” reiterating what it stated in Cabelles, “a traffic stop ‘prolonged beyond’ [the] point [of completing the traffic stop’s mission] is ‘unlawful.’”8
In the end, the Supreme Court remanded this case back to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals because it failed to address whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justified detaining Rodriguez beyond the completion of the traffic infraction investigation. If it finds there was reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop, the dog sniff is lawful; if not, the sniff is unlawful.
The Bottom Line
So what’s an officer to do? Does the Rodriguez case impose real limitations on police officers? Yes and no. Yes, in holding that police officers cannot conduct dog sniffs as part of a traffic stop as a matter of course. No, in holding that as long as police officers have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, they are permitted to extend the stop for a reasonable period of time.
Let’s take a common example. Ordinarily, a police officer may not have sufficient reason to suspect that a vehicle is carrying drugs when a traffic stop begins. However, the officer may extend the stop if a reason develops before the stop is actually completed. Thus, a police officer patrolling in a jurisdiction where marijuana is illegal may extend the traffic stop if they smell the odor of marijuana while speaking to the occupants of a vehicle. This is because the officer now has reasonable suspicion to believe that evidence of criminal activity (marijuana possession) may be located in the vehicle.
One other thing: it is more important than ever that whenever canines are used to conduct sniffs during a traffic stop that the reasons for doing so are documented clearly.
1. U.S. Supreme Court, No. 13-9972.
2. Id., p. 2-3.
3. Id., p. 4.
4. Illinois v. Cabelles, 543 U.S. 405, 406, 408 (2005) (dog sniff); Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 327-28 (2009) (unrelated questioning).
5. Cabellas, 543 U.S. at 407.
6. Johnson, 555 U.S. at 333.
7. The Supreme Court held that requesting occupants to exit the vehicle is a de minimus intrusion that is outweighed by the government’s interest in officer safety. Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 110-111 (1977) (drivers); Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 413-415 (1997) (passengers).
8. Rodriguez, No. 13-9972, p. 8.