Drug sniffing dogs across the country might receive some much needed vacation after this U.S. Supreme Court ruling, that extending a lawful traffic stop for the sole purpose of letting a dog sniff a vehicle is a violation of your Fourth Amendment right. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that…
“a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.”
The case before the court, Rodriguez v. United States, stemmed from a routine traffic stop in 2012, where Denny Rodriguez was pulled over by a K9 unit in Nebraska after he swerved his vehicle to avoid a pothole in the roadway. The officer who pulled Rodriguez over took an extraordinary amount of time during the stop, to the tune of 21 minutes. After such time, the officer simply issued Rodriguez a written warning, but asked if he could run his dog around the vehicle.
After Rodriguez denied the officer’s request, he was forced out of the vehicle while the officer called for backup.
Six minutes later, the officer walked his dog around the vehicle and the dog alerted to the presence of drugs. A subsequent search was conducted and a large bag of methamphetamine was found. Rodriguez eventually pleaded guilty to the charge of possession, but later appealed on the grounds that the evidence was gathered illegally.
Today’s decision proved that to be true.
If you are a regular reader of Photography is Not a Crime, then you already know that the average police officer is largely ignorant of the laws they are delegated to enforce. With that being said, expect K9 units to be undeterred by this ruling for the foreseeable future, so here is what you need to know to about today’s ruling:
Authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed. In other words, police have no authority to conduct a K9 search of your vehicle outside the normal time it takes to issue a citation. Calling in a backup K9 unit, for example, to search your vehicle while being pulled over for a defective brake light would fall outside the authority granted to them by the constitution. For example, Ryan Scott documented a routine traffic stop in which officers pulled him over for a failure to signal 100 ft before an intersection, yet held him for over 11 minutes before they searched his car. Had the officers found drugs in his vehicle, the Rodriguez case sets precedent that the evidence collected would most likely be suppressed. Watch Scott’s video below.
A dog sniff is not part of the officer’s traffic mission. The court ruled that an officer’s mission during a traffic stop includes determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, checking the driver for warrants, inspecting vehicle registration and verifying proof of insurance. These checks all serve the purpose of enforcing the traffic code. However, using a K9 to search for drugs is not considered part of the officer’s “traffic mission.”
Officers can’t earn extra time by completing traffic tasks quickly. The government argued before the court that officers should be able to conduct these unconstitutional drug sniffs if they are able to complete their traffic tasks really quick, therefore leaving extra time for the dog to hunt some drugs. The court referred to this argument is “unpersuasive,” adding that..
“a traffic stop ‘prolonged beyond’ the time in fact needed for the officer to complete his traffic-based inquiries is ‘unlawful'”
So, it is not the measure of time that is the important factor, is is whether or not the search takes away time from the actual traffic mission.
Know your rights. Most importantly, you must understand the laws that protect you from unreasonable search and seizure to begin with. You don’t have to consent to searches or seizures of your property. Objecting to searches or seizures might even help you later in court. Always ask if you are free to leave. If Rodriguez, after receiving his warning, had simply asked the officer if he was being detained or if he was free to leave, he might have been able to drive away and avoid the illegal search in the first place.
Always record police (horizontally). It is crucial that you record police in a way that will capture the most objective footage possible. Capturing an independent recording of officers conducting their traffic stop and even a later search can often deter officers from acting outside the law. If nothing else, pretend like you’re recording.
Be Proactive. This ruling is sure to send shock waves through the legal system, and even down to the street cops, but it might serve you well to get your local police department on record regarding this decision. Seek out your local public information officer for the police department and ask if they plan to adjust their policies due to this ruling. You might just make a change and save the life of a future victim.