On April 21, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police cannot extend a person’s detention, during a normal traffic stop, while they look for evidence of crimes unrelated to the offense that prompted the initial stop.
In Rodriguez v. United States, a driver was pulled over by police for driving on the highway shoulder. Police then made the driver wait 10 minutes for backup officers to arrive with a drug-sniffing dog to search for drugs. Once the dog arrived, it alerted police and the car was searched where methamphetamine was found.
What’s the Problem?
The driver argued that because police pulled him over for driving on the shoulder (a traffic infraction) they had no right to detain him for almost 10 extra minutes to wait for drug-sniffing dogs to arrive. Police simply could have written him a ticket and sent him on his way. The driver’s challenge made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court who had to answer the following question: Was it reasonable to extend the driver’s roadside detention for longer than needed to deal with the initial offense, absent reasonable suspicion on the part of the officer of additional criminal activity? In other words, if the cop only suspected the driver of a traffic offense and nothing else, can the cop continue to detain the driver to snoop for other criminal activity like drug possession?
Supreme Court Says Police Went Too Far
The U.S. Supreme Court said, “no.” Detaining the driver for reasons beyond the initial traffic stop was unreasonable. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said, “A traffic stop becomes unlawful if prolonged beyond the time in fact needed to complete all traffic-based inquiries.”
In Minnesota – and the entire country – police are usually allowed to make “routine” measures like asking a driver for a license, asking for proof of insurance, and checking for outstanding warrants because those actions are used to ensure vehicles are being safely operated. Bringing in a drug-sniffing dog is not a “routine” measure, however. Police don’t bring in drug-sniffing dogs to enforce traffic laws, but rather to search for drugs.
So what’s wrong with that? Don’t we want police to find criminals who hide drugs? Yes, but not if that means stripping away our Fourth Amendment rights. “A dog sniff, unlike those stock inquiries, lacks the same tie to roadway safety,” said Justice Ginsburg.
During oral arguments in this case, Justice Sonya Sotomayor said, “We can’t keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement … [p]articularly when this stop is not incidental to the purpose of the stop. It’s purely to help the police get more criminals, yes. But then the Fourth Amendment becomes a useless piece of paper.”
This case is now law for the entire country, including Minnesota. While this decision deals with drugs and drug-sniffing dogs, the principle behind it extends to other types of cases like DWI, gun possession, or any other situation where police detain a Minnesota driver. To speak with a Minneapolis criminal defense attorney about traffic stops and searches, call us at (612) 338-5007 for a free case evaluation.