The Supreme Court this week handed down an opinion that should be celebrated by Fourth Amendment advocates as a step forward in the fight against government and law enforcement overreach. In a 6-3 opinion the Court held that police officers may not unnecessarily prolong a traffic stop to perform a dog-sniffing drug search.
BRIEF RECITATION OF CASE FACTS
It is not uncommon for law enforcement to use the pretext of a simple traffic stop for speeding or changing lanes improperly to begin a larger investigation into other criminal activity like drug smuggling. Once pulled over, law enforcement may prolong that initial traffic stop by stalling or asking questions in order to buy time for a drug-sniffing dog to be brought to the location. But, the Court has now pronounced that
“A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation” and “the authority for the seizure…ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been – completed.”
What case led us to this point?
One midnight in Nebraska, “K-9” Officer Morgan Struble was driving alone with his drug-sniffing companion when he saw Rodriguez’s car drift over the shoulder line and then jerk back onto the road. Struble stopped the car, asked for an explanation (“pothole”), and took Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance to run a records check back in his patrol car. He asked Rodriguez to accompany him, but when Rodriguez asked if he had to and Struble said no, Rodriguez “decided to wait in his own vehicle.” (This brings to mind the many videos populating the internet these days that show people not complying with police requests unless ordered to. As I often remind my students, these videos tend not to show the incidents where such “standing on your rights” goes badly for the private citizen. “Know your rights, but don’t always invoke them,” is my realpolitik advice. The real world is a volatile place.)
In any case, Struble returned to Rodriguez’s car, began to question a passenger, and then went back to his patrol car to run a records check on the passenger. He also radioed for a back-up officer – Officer Struble had apparently already decided to conduct a dog sniff of Rodriguez’s car and he wanted another officer there for safety. With the second records check still negative, Struble went back to Rodriguez’s car again, finished writing a warning ticket, and asked permission to walk his dog around the car. When Rodriguez declined that invitation as well, Struble (surprise!) ordered him from the car and did it anyway. And “surprise again!” — methamphetamine.
This is an important case in the enforcement of the rights of citizens to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, a right guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Citizens should be protected from suspicion-less searches and seizures that lack any probable cause and the Supreme Court has gone a long way this week in upholding those rights.
If you believe you have been the victim of an unreasonable search or seizure, leading to your arrest, please contact our office immediately to challenge.