On April 21st the Supreme Court declared that an ordinary traffic stop can not be extended by a police officer to seek evidence of a crime that is unrelated to that of which initially prompted the officer to pull over the vehicle.
The ruling came about when Denny Rodriguez was pulled over and issued a warning for swerving onto the shoulder of a road in Nebraska. As the officer carried out standard traffic stop procedure he became suspicious that Rodriguez was in possession of an illegal substance.
Rodriguez had to wait on the side of the road as the officer inspected his vehicle with a drug-sniffing dog. The dog alerted the officer that there were drugs present inside of the vehicle. After searching the car the officer found methamphetamine.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty for meth possession, but appealed his conviction. He argued that his fourth amendment rights were violated during an unreasonable search and seizure conducted by the officer.
The 8th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals stated that utilizing a drug-sniffing considered unconstitutional only if the traffic stop is prolonged for an unreasonable amount of time before the drug-sniffing dog becomes involved in the search.
Rodriguez was delayed about seven to eight minute before the dog was commanded to sniff around his vehicle. The court found this delay to be a reasonable amount of time in other court cases, and deemed it a reasonable amount of time in Rodriguez’s case as well. The court claims the only violation in the Rodriguez’s case was that the officer detained Rodriguez without reasonable suspicion, which is a minor violation of Rodriguez’s personal liberty. Rodriguez felt that the verdict was unjust and took his case to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court voted 6-3 that prolonging a traffic stop is outside an officer’s jurisdiction. An officer may ask you for your license, registration, proof of insurance, and may check for any outstanding warrants; because those are the determinants that ensure a vehicle is being operated safely. The amount of time involved to carry out this basic procedure is unimportant, but if a traffic stop is prolonged beyond the time needed to complete the standard traffic based inquiries it is considered unlawful.
Rodriguez won his case at the Supreme Court, but because he was in possession of an illegal substance he may still face legal trouble. However that is up to the lower courts to decide.
Written by: Patrick Thompson