The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled a police officer cannot extend the time needed to conduct a traffic stop in order to use drug-sniffing dogs without reasonable cause.
The ruling found that doing so violates a person’s Fourth Amendment right prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizures.
“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,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the ruling.
“A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, ‘become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission’ of issuing a ticket for the violation,” she wrote, quoting the finding in another case, Illinois v. Caballes.
The case stems from a 2012 traffic stop in Nebraska. Driver Dennys Rodriguez was pulled over by officer Morgan Struble for veering onto the shoulder of the highway.
Struble checked the registration, insurance and driver’s licenses of Rodriguez and the passenger of the vehicle and wrote the man a warning. At this point Struble asked Rodriguez if he could search his vehicle. Rodriguez said “no.”
Struble called for backup and asked Rodriguez to exit his vehicle. When a second officer arrived, Struble then walked his K-9 around the vehicle twice, at which time the dog indicated the presence of drugs. Officers found a bag of methamphetamine and in the subsequent court case, Rodriguez was sentenced to five years in prison for possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute.
“All told, seven or eight minutes had elapsed from the time Struble issued the written warning until the dog indicated the presence of drugs,” Ginsburg wrote.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. dissented.
“Approximately 29 minutes passed from the time Officer Struble stopped Rodriguez until his narcotics-detection alerted to the presence of drugs,” Thomas wrote in his dissent. “That amount of time is hardly out of the ordinary for a traffic stop by a single officer of a vehicle containing multiple occupants even when no dog sniff is involved.”
“A traffic stop made by a rookie could be executed in a reasonable manner, whereas the same traffic stop made by a knowledgeable, veteran officer in precisely the same circumstances might not, if in fact his knowledge and experience made him capable of completing the stop faster,” he further said.
The case was handed back to lower courts, which will decide if Struble had reasonable suspicion leading to his search of Rodriguez’s vehicle. At that point his case may be overturned.