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Dog Sniffs are Not Routine Traffic Stop Procedures: Rodriguez v. United States

| Apr 30, 2015 | Criminal Law

In a drastic shift in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, the Supreme Court recently decided that, absent reasonable suspicion, an officer cannot extend a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff of the vehicle. Any stop that exceeds the time necessary to handle the initial reason for the stop is an unreasonable seizure

What Happened?

In March 2012, Officer Struble pulled over Dennys Rodriguez and his passenger for driving on a highway shoulder. Upon approaching the vehicle, the officer interviewed Mr. Rodriguez, who responded that he swerved to avoid a pothole. After running warrant checks on both men and reviewing Mr. Rodriguez’s registration and insurance, Officer Struble returned the documentation to the vehicle, which reeked of air freshener, and interviewed the “nervous” passenger, who had an odd justification for traveling to Omaha.

After drafting a written warning, the officer asked Mr. Rodriguez if he would consent to a dog sniff of his car. Mr. Rodriguez refused and was asked to exit his vehicle. Officer Struble called for backup, and on the dog’s second lap of the vehicle, he alerted that there were drugs present. A search revealed a large bag of methamphetamine and Mr. Rodriguez was charged in with possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.

This case was taken to resolve a split among lower courts on whether police may routinely extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, to conduct a dog sniff. The full opinion is available here.

Dog Sniffs Do Not “Further the Mission” of a Traffic Stop

Ultimately, this case decided that the authority to detain someone for a traffic infraction ends when the tasks related to the infraction have been, or should have been, completed. This means that any additional investigative actions taken by officers, such as a dog sniff, must be independently supported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause in order to be found constitutional.

In this case, the court found that the necessary tasks related to a traffic stop include the officer’s decision whether or not to issue a ticket, run a warrant check on the passengers, check the car’s registration, and verify the insurance information. These actions are justified because they speak to the purpose of a traffic stop: to ensure that vehicles are operated safely.

A dog sniff, however, is beyond the justification for an ordinary traffic stop because it does not further the “officer’s traffic mission” of ensuring that vehicles are being operated safely. Dog sniffs are not the same as the other tasks routinely performed during a traffic stop because sniffs are not related to roadway safety in the same way a license and warrant check are. In the court’s view, dog sniffs seek evidence of additional crimes, which actually “detour” from the officer’s traffic control purpose. As such, dog sniffs must be independently warranted before an officer can extend a stop to perform one.

No Answer on Reasonable Suspicion

The dissent highlights that the touchstone of Fourth Amendment inquiries is reasonableness. From this framework, it argues that the dog sniff was reasonable on its face because Officer Struble had probable cause to stop the vehicle, giving him the chance to extend the stop as necessary. The dissent continues that the extended detention for the sniff was additionally warranted because Officer Struble had reasonable suspicion to search based on his observations and inquiries of the passengers.

The majority opinion did not answer whether the officer had reasonable suspicion because the appellate court did not rule on the issue. That being said, because the case was remanded, that question is still open for decision.

What now?

Because the court found dog sniffs are not a routine traffic stop procedure, officers will not be allowed to extend traffic stops to conduct dog sniffs without a reasonable articulated reason for doing so.

If you were pulled over for a traffic stop, or have been arrested and are facing criminal charges, it is crucial to have an experienced attorney navigate you through the ever-changing criminal justice system. Contact George Hildebrandt, Attorney at Law, to help you protect your Constitutional rights, including your protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.