April 21, 2015

Supreme Court Decides Rodriguez v. United States

On April 21, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Rodriguez v. United States, No. 13-9972, holding that, absent reasonable suspicion, the Fourth Amendment prohibits police from prolonging a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff.

An officer stopped Rodriguez after his vehicle swerved onto the shoulder of a highway in violation of state law. After checking Rodriguez’s driver’s license, completing a records check, and issuing a warning ticket for driving on the highway shoulder, the officer asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his K-9 dog around the car. Rodriguez said no. The officer then instructed Rodriguez to exit the vehicle and wait until a second officer arrived. That second officer arrived seven or eight minutes later, at which time the dog walked around the vehicle and indicated the presence of drugs. Officers found a large bag of methamphetamine in the vehicle.

Rodriguez was indicted on federal drug charges and moved to suppress the evidence seized from the vehicle on grounds that the police had prolonged the traffic stop, without reasonable cause, to conduct the dog sniff. The District Court denied the motion to suppress on the ground that, under Eighth Circuit precedent, prolonging the stop for seven or eight minutes was only a de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Eighth Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that police may detain someone in a traffic stop without a warrant only as long as is necessary to address the traffic violation that justified the stop by, for example, checking the driver’s license and insurance coverage and determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver. “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.” A dog sniff is not an ordinary part of a traffic stop, and therefore requires individualized suspicion to conduct it.

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined. Justice Kennedy filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Alito joined, and in which Kennedy joined as to all but one part.  Justice Alito filed a separate dissenting opinion.   

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