Rodriguez v. United States: Supreme Court Says No to Prolonged Traffic Stops

Last week, the Supreme Court decided City of Los Angeles v. Patel, the fourth and final of its search-and-seizure cases this term. In Patel, the Court overturned a city ordinance requiring hotel operators to share information about their guests with the police.

Patel confirmed this as a good term for Fourth Amendment rights, joining Grady v. North Carolina (GPS tracking of sex offender counted as search for Fourth-Amendment purposes) and Rodriguez v. United States (police improperly extended traffic stop to conduct dog sniff of car). Less favorable, though, was Heien v. North Carolina (no suppression of evidence obtained after traffic stop that was based on officer’s reasonable mistake of law).

The remainder of this post will focus on Rodriguez, which strikes me as the most interesting of the Fourth-Amendment series. Broadly speaking, at issue was the extent to which the police can go on a fishing expedition when they pull over a driver for a traffic violation.  

Officer Struble observed Rodriguez briefly veer onto the shoulder of a highway, then pull back into his proper lane. Struble stopped Rodriguez to give him a ticket for driving on the shoulder. The ticketing process, including routine record checks, took about 20 minutes. Then, after the traffic violation was entirely taken care of, the officer decided that he wanted to do a dog sniff of Rodriguez’s car. Rodriguez objected, but the search was conducted anyway, and a large bag of meth was discovered. It took about 7-8 minutes to perform this search.

In the ensuing federal drug prosecution, Rodriguez moved to suppress the drugs because there was no reasonable suspicion to support the dog sniff; as Rodriguez saw it, the officer was just on a fishing expedition.

In deciding the motion, the magistrate judge agreed that there was no reasonable suspicion for the dog sniff, but held that 7-8 minutes was too short a delay to cause a constitutional violation.

This holding framed the legal question for the Supreme Court: Can an otherwise valid traffic stop be prolonged for a short period of time in order to conduct a dog sniff?

The Court said no. Here’s how the Court described the legal standards for a traffic stop:

[T]he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s “mission”—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop, and attend to related safety concerns. Because addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, it may last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose. Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.

The Court did make clear, however, that “[b]eyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission includes ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop. Typically such inquiries involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” So, the Court did not adopt an inflexible prohibition on doing anything but writing the ticket. However, the Court did make clear that the stop may not be prolonged in order to engage in the detection of evidence of “ordinary criminal wrongdoing,” including drug trafficking, in the absence of reasonable suspicion.

The dissents raised at least of couple of interesting points.

First, Justice Thomas’s dissent focused on the tension between what the Court did here and earlier decisions, like Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, in which the Court held that a full-blown custodial arrest may be made if the police have probable cause to suspect that even a low-level traffic violation has occurred. If police could have arrested Rodriguez, Thomas asks, how can it be sensible that they are prohibited from detaining him for an extra 7-8 minutes? Perhaps the majority opinion in Rodriguez implicitly reflects some interest in moving away from Atwater and the wide discretion that has been given to police officers in handling routine traffic violations.

Second, Justice Alito’s dissent points out that the order in which officers do things may now determine the constitutionality of a dog sniff. If an officer conducts the dog sniff while he is waiting for the records check to be completed, then there would apparently be no constitutional violation; there is only a problem if the dog sniff is done after the records check. In practice, then, enterprising officers may not really be impeded much by Rodriguez.

We also need to bear in mind another big-picture point: everything the Court decided in Rodriguez was premised in the assumption that there was no reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop. However, reasonable suspicion is a low standard, and one imagines that in most cases in which an officer might be interested in a dog sniff, it would not be hard for the officer to make a credible showing of reasonable suspicion.

Cross posted at Life Sentences Blog.

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