On April 21, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated an Eighth Circuit ruling allowing police to conduct drug-detecting dog sniffs following an otherwise completed traffic stop. In Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. ___ (2015), the Court held that absent reasonable suspicion to investigate for drugs, a dog sniff conducted after the completion of a traffic stop constitutes an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
The facts of Rodriguez involved a motorist pulled over for driving on a highway shoulder in violation of Nebraska law. After questioning the motorist and his passenger and running a records check on the motorist, the officer issued a written warning. The officer proceeded to explain the contents of the warning, and when finished, asked the motorist if the officer could conduct a dog sniff. The motorist refused, and the officer instructed the motorist and his passenger to exit the vehicle. After seven to eight minutes elapsed, a second officer arrived and conducted a dog sniff, which revealed methamphetamines.
The motorist was indicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute, and moved to have the evidence suppressed. The magistrate judge rejected the motion, and both the district court and Eighth Circuit affirmed on the grounds that a seven-to-eight-minute delay constituted a de minimis intrusion on the motorist’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Writing for a 6–3 majority, Justice Ginsburg vacated the Eighth Circuit’s decision. The Court focused on the officer’s own admission that no reasonable suspicion existed to initiate a dog sniff once the officer had issued the written warning. The Court made clear that absent reasonable suspicion, a traffic stop may only last as long as necessary to investigate the traffic infraction for which the stop was made. While police may conduct ancillary investigations to ensure safety, such as checking a driver’s license, running a records check, and inspecting a registration and proof of insurance, the Court noted that dog sniffs lack a close nexus to any such safety issue. Therefore, conducting a dog sniff absent reasonable suspicion deviates from the mission of the stop.
Justice Ginsburg reiterated the Court’s analysis in Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2003), stating that the critical question is whether the dog sniff adds time to the stop. While the Court vacated the Eighth Circuit’s holding that any intrusion into the motorist’s Fourth Amendment’s rights was de minimis, the Court left open on remand the question of whether reasonable suspicion in fact existed.
In his dissent, Justice Thomas asserted that the officer executed the stop in a reasonable manner and that the officer had reasonable suspicion to delay the motorist and conduct a dog sniff. Focusing on the “reasonableness” inquiry of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, Justice Thomas examined the totality of the circumstances as well as the traditional protections granted by common law. Justice Thomas reiterated that a 29-minute stop inclusive of a dog sniff is no longer in duration than a stop that does not involve any dog sniff. The dissenters criticized the majority’s view that a traffic stop ends once the investigation into the infraction for which the stop occurred is completed, stating that such a standard is linked too closely to individual officer’s efficiency and local practices. Justice Thomas explained that by allowing the scope of the stop to depend so heavily on individual officer efficiency, a stop made by a rookie officer could be executed in a reasonable manner while the same exact stop made by a veteran officer could be held unreasonable. Additionally, the dissenters challenged the majority’s opinion that a dog sniff does not constitute a traffic-based inquiry. The outcome of the majority’s holding, Thomas claims, is limiting the scope of an officer’s activities during a traffic stop made based on probable cause. The dissent also emphasizes a number of factual bases for which the officer may have had a reasonable suspicion to conduct a dog sniff.
When read in conjunction with Caballes, this opinion provides useful insight into understanding permissible and impermissible expansion of traffic stops and when the enhanced scope of such stops tread the line of unreasonableness under the Fourth Amendment. While Caballes left open many questions, Rodriguez clarifies these issues without running afoul of Caballes.
Keywords: litigation, young lawyer, dog sniff, Fourth Amendment, Supreme Court
— Jared Shwartz, Cohen and Wolf, P.C., Bridgeport, CT