Traffic stops once again garnered the attention of the nation's highest court this week. In Rodriguez v. United States, SCOTUS threw out the conviction of a motorist whose traffic stop was delayed so the officer could have a dog sniff the car for drugs. By finding the delay in the traffic stop unconstitutional, SCOTUS dimmed the green light given police ten years ago in Illinois v. Caballes and limited the ability of cops to prolong detentions without facts to back them up.
The 2005 Caballes Traffic Stop Decision
Caballes had held that the Fourth Amendment does not require an officer to have a reasonable suspicion of drugs before having a drug-sniffing dog sniff a car. The canine investigation does not in and of itself make an otherwise lawful stop unconstitutional. Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the dog sniff could not violate the Fourth Amendment because there was no possibility of protected activity being searched. (That is, the dog sniff revealed no information except the location of a substance no individual has a right to possess.) Caballes did not address the length of the detention because the Court "accept[ed] the state court's conclusion that the duration of the stop in this case was entirely justified by the traffic offense and the ordinary inquiries incident to such a stop."
This factor is important because Caballes never had to address the situation where the dog sniff actually does prolong the initial traffic stop beyond what it would have taken otherwise.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dissenting in Caballes, objected that any roadside investigation must be limited in scope to the circumstances which justified the Fourth Amendment interference in the first place. In her view, without articulable facts providing a reasonable suspicion of drugs, an officer may not do a drug investigation during a traffic stop. Justice Ginsburg would have her day.
The Rodriguez Traffic Stop Decision
The Rodriguez case this week decided the issue left open by Caballes. What if the additional investigation does delay the traffic stop beyond what the stop would have required? Now writing for the majority, Justice Ginsburg found that a delay of seven or eight minutes was too long to make a motorist wait in the absence of any facts to justify the longer detention.
We hold 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.
Rodriguez involved what started as a routine traffic stop that law enforcement made into a "federal case."
Officer Morgan Struble, a K-9 officer in Nebraska, stopped petitioner Rodriguez for driving on a highway shoulder, a violation of Nebraska law. Struble checked the driver's licenses of Rodriguez and his passenger and issued a warning for the traffic offense. He then asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his dog around the vehicle. When Rodriguez refused, Struble detained him until a second officer arrived. Struble then retrieved his dog, who alerted to the presence of drugs in the vehicle. The ensuing search revealed methamphetamine. Seven or eight minutes elapsed from the time Struble issued the written warning until the dog alerted.
Rodriguez was indicted on federal drug charges and filed a motion to suppress the drugs on Fourth Amendment grounds. The magistrate judge in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska agreed with Rodriguez that there was no probable cause for the search of the car. However, he found that the delay of seven or eight minutes was only a de minimus intrusion on his rights and therefore, constitutional. The district court adopted the magistrate's findings, and the Eight Circuit affirmed. SCOTUS granted certoriari to resolve a conflict among lower courts on the question whether police routinely may extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, to conduct a dog sniff.
It was pretty clear earlier this year during oral argument that justices were skeptical of both lawyer's arguments. The defense lawyer-arguing a result for his client and not for motorists nationwide-asked the court to establish a "bright line" holding that once a traffic stop is completed, all investigation must cease. Justice Ginsburg pounced.
[That sounds like] the easiest thing to get around. The police can just say, I'm doing to defer that [ticket] a few minutes until the dog sniff occurs. It just seems to me that you're not going to accomplish any protection for individuals if that's your position.
Justice Elena Kagan went right to the heart of the government's case.
You're saying Caballes gives you this extra leeway to detain people even though it is longer than an ordinary traffic stop would take, and I think that's just not right. It's not some kind of extra leeway for the police officers to do things outside the bounds of the traffic stop itself.
In the end, Justice Ginsburg was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan. They held "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." (Slip opinion at p. 1.) It does not matter whether the dog sniff was done before or after the officer writes the ticket, "but whether conducting the sniff 'prolongs'-i.e., adds time to-'the stop.'" (Slip opinion at p. 8.)
Easter Egg for Law Nerds
Page 9 of the slip opinion is worthy for Justice Ginsburg's highbrow attacks on the arguments of Justices Alito and Thomas as to whether the facts known to Officer Struble did, in fact, constitute a reasonable suspicion. The magistrate judge found that they did not, and the District Court adopted those findings. However, the Eighth Circuit, in affirming the District Court's holding, did not review this factual finding. As such, the issue was not properly presented to SCOTUS (a fact even dissenting Justice Kennedy agrees with).
The Magistrate Judge found that detention for the dog sniff in this case was not independently supported by individualized suspicion, see App. 100, and the District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's findings, see id., at 112-113. The Court of Appeals, however, did not review that determination. But see post, at 1, 10-12 (THOMAS, J., dissenting) (resolving the issue, nevermind that the Court of Appeals left it unaddressed); post, at 1-2 (ALITO, J., dissenting) (upbraiding the Court for addressing the sole issue decided by the Court of Appeals and characterizing the Court's answer as "unnecessary" because the Court, instead, should have decided an issue the Court of Appeals did not decide). The question whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justified detaining Rodriguez beyond completion of the traffic infraction investigation, therefore, remains open for Eighth Circuit consideration on remand.
Remand to the Eighth Circuit
What also follows from this quoted language is that the case is not necessarily over. SCOTUS has remanded it back to the Eighth Circuit-possibly to determine on remand whether the traffic stop survives a "reasonable suspicion" scrutiny. It is conceivable that the Eighth Circuit could determine that Officer Struble was justified in delaying the stop for the drug sniff because the facts known to him constituted a "reasonable suspicion" of a crime. We, and Mr. Rodriguez, will have to wait and see.