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Supreme Court Finds Prolonged Traffic Stop Unconstitutional

Ronaldo Rauseo-Ricupero and Charles Dell'Anno

Supreme Court Finds Prolonged Traffic Stop Unconstitutional
Jorge Villalba via Getty Images

In Rodriguez v. United States, No. 13-9972 (2015), the U.S. Supreme Court held that, absent reasonable suspicion, unnecessarily prolonging a traffic stop can constitute an unreasonable seizure. In a 6–3 majority opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court rejected the Eighth Circuit’s holding that a de minimis extension of a traffic stop could be justified under the Fourth Amendment.

In 2012, Nebraska police stopped Dennys Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder of the highway. The officer conducted a routine traffic stop, including questioning Rodriguez and his passenger and conducting a records check. After issuing him a traffic warning, the officer asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his narcotics-detecting canine around the perimeter of the vehicle. When Rodriguez refused to consent, the officer ordered him out of the vehicle and detained him. About seven minutes later, another officer arrived. Police conducted the canine search without consent, and the dog indicated that drugs were located in the vehicle. Rodriguez was charged with one count of possession with the intent to distribute methamphetamine.

Rodriguez moved to suppress on the ground that the officer had prolonged the traffic stop to conduct the canine search without reasonable suspicion. The magistrate judge found that although there was no reasonable suspicion, the brief extension of the stop was a permissible de minimis intrusion into Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, concluding that the infringement on Rodriguez’s personal liberty was not unconstitutional. United States v. Rodriguez, 741 F.3d 905 (8th Cir. 2014). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the split in authority regarding “whether police may routinely extend an otherwise compelled traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, to conduct a dog sniff.”

Describing a traffic stop as analogous to a Terry stop, the Court held that the tolerable duration of a traffic stop is only as long as is necessary to complete the tasks associated with the traffic infraction. Such tasks include checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, checking the car’s registration and proof of insurance, and ultimately issuing a traffic ticket when necessary.

The Court distinguished its earlier holding in Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977), which held that a de minimis intrusion during a traffic stop could be justified in the interests of officer safety. Here, the Court reaffirmed the Mimms holding, stating that the interests of officer safety are closely related to the mission of the traffic stop, and, therefore, negligibly burdensome safety precautions may be taken. Dog sniffs, in contrast, serve a general interest in criminal enforcement, which detours from the mission of a traffic stop and cannot be justified as part of the stop.