On April 21, the Supreme Court ruled that a traffic stop cannot be extended in order to conduct a dog sniff unless the police officer has reasonable grounds for suspecting the car of transporting drugs.

What happened?

In 2012, on a March night just after midnight, Dennys Rodriguez was pulled over in Nebraska because a police officer named Struble, who happened to be a K-9 officer, saw him swerve slowly onto the shoulder and back. It took about 20 minutes for Struble to check the paperwork of Rodriguez, his passenger, and his car and to issue a warning ticket.

Once the traffic stop proper was finished, Struble wanted to check the car for drugs. Struble asked for Rodriguez’s permission to walk Struble’s dog around Rodriguez’s car, and Rodriguez declined. Then Struble told Rodriguez to turn off the car, get out of the car, and wait for another officer to arrive. (Struble called for backup as a safety precaution.) The second officer arrived about 6 minutes later, and then Struble walked his dog around Rodriguez’s car. On the second lap around the car, the dog alerted. Then the police searched Rodriguez’s car and found a large bag of drugs.

What did the Supreme Court say?

The Supreme Court ruled (in a 6-3 decision) that when law enforcement prolongs a traffic stop in order to conduct a drug sniff, and the police do not have reasonable grounds to suspect that the stopped vehicle is carrying illegal drugs, that is a violation of the driver’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. It does not matter whether the drug sniff is done before or after the ticket is written; the issue is that a traffic stop should be just a traffic stop (except for reasonable suspicion of other crime); a dog sniff is not part of determining whether a car is following the rules of the road. Once “tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed,” the opinion says on page 2, the vehicle should be free to go.

How is this different from a similar case, Illinois v. Caballes?

The case of Rodriguez is very similar to a 2005 case, Illinois v. Caballes, but in the Caballes case the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the police evidence and against the driver of the vehicle. Like Rodriguez, Caballes was pulled over in a routine traffic stop (in the case of Caballes, for speeding), had his car sniffed by a drug-detection dog apparently on the whim of the officer, and drugs were discovered as a result. The key factor that made the Court rule differently in Caballes than in Rodriguez was that when Caballes was stopped, the second officer arrived well before the traffic stop was complete, so the dog sniff happened while the first officer was writing the ticket. The dog sniff did not extend the time of the traffic stop.

Hence we see that, in the view of the Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment is not upheld when someone is detained for longer than necessary at a traffic stop. In its opinion on Caballes, the Court said that they did not think a dog sniff was an unreasonable search because a well-trained dog only reveals illegal contraband, not lawful activity. Since conducting a dog sniff does not give law enforcement any information about any lawful activity, it is allowable under the Fourth Amendment.

What happens next for Rodriguez?

The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Rodriguez does not mean that he has been found innocent of federal drug charges. In official terminology, the Supreme Court remanded the case; that means they sent the case back to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court ruled that prolonging a traffic stop without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment, but the alternate question in this case is: did Officer Struble have reasonable suspicion to conduct a dog sniff? This question was not addressed by the Eighth Circuit when that Court first ruled against Rodriguez. However, in the record of the proceedings against Rodriguez, Officer Struble said that he noticed that Rodriguez’s car had a strong deodorizer, which made him suspicious. (Another analysis of the case by Rory Little mentioned that Officer Struble also said his suspicions were aroused by how nervous the passenger in the car was.) So probably what will happen next is that the Eighth Circuit will consider whether that amounts to reasonable grounds for a drug sniff.

Does this ruling affect my case?

The Supreme Court did not explicitly make this ruling retroactive. That means that someone who has already been sentenced under the same circumstances — namely, they were arrested at a traffic stop in which a K-9 police officer performed a drug sniff, the drug sniff added time to the traffic stop, and the police officer had no reasonable grounds to suspect drugs would be found until the dog alerted — could use this in their case, but it might not help them. If the Government proved the police did have reasonable suspicions, then it definitely wouldn’t help them.

What loose ends does this ruling leave?

The Supreme Court’s majority ruling may sound like a simple rule, but, as Rory Little’s analysis of the opinion points out, real life is not so nice and neat. Since the majority opinion said that the problem is extending the time of the traffic stop, not with the dog sniff, will police officers squeeze dog sniffs into traffic stops by rearranging how they conduct a traffic stop? (The majority opinion said that if a police officer works faster, that just means the traffic stop ought to be shorter, but probably someone in law enforcement will be creative enough to think of a way around that.)

This case is really another form of the question: When is it allowable for what starts as a traffic stop to turn into a drug investigation? And does a dog sniff turn a traffic stop into a drug investigation? If so, was there “reasonable suspicion” to turn a traffic stop into a drug investigation? And if a dog sniff doesn’t turn a traffic stop into a drug investigation, why doesn’t it? Remember that right now the Supreme Court holds that a dog sniff is not an invasive search since it does not reveal any legal activities, only the presence of contraband. Rory Little’s analysis ends by asking whether that view of dog sniffs is going to change.

Nevertheless, it is reassuring that the Supreme Court’s ruling limits the power the police have to delay people during traffic stops.


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