BY JANELLY CRESPO — On January 21, 2015, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Rodriguez v. United States, a case that will help define the proper limits of a traffic stop, including whether officers can extend a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff. The Court granted certiorari in order to consider whether officers may extend an already completed traffic stop—without reasonable suspicion or independent justification—to conduct a dog sniff. Although it would appear that Illinois v. Caballes resolves the issue of when officers can conduct dog sniffs during a traffic stop, language within that case supports the interpretation that as long as the dog sniff does not unreasonably prolong the stop, utilizing a dog sniff is lawful. So, what length of prolongation is reasonable? What should the Court hold?
In the early morning hours of March 27, 2012, a K-9 officer on patrol observed a vehicle veer onto the shoulder of the road before jerking back into position. Suspicious of the incident, the officer initiated a traffic stop. Without pause, the officer asked the driver, Dennys Rodriguez, why he veered onto the shoulder. Rodriguez explained that he swerved to avoid a pothole. The officer proceeded to collect Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, and completed a review of Rodriguez’s records. Afterwards, the officer also asked Rodriguez’s passenger for his information, as well as where they were coming from. The passenger explained that they were returning to Norfolk, Nebraska after car shopping in Omaha, Nebraska. Upon returning to his vehicle, the officer completed a review of the passenger’s records and called for back up. At this point, roughly twenty minutes into the stop, the officer issued Rodriguez a written warning. The officer subsequently asked for consent to conduct a dog sniff of the vehicle. Rodriguez refused. The officer instructed Rodriguez to get out of his vehicle and stand in front of the patrol car. Approximately eight minutes later, a second officer arrived and both officers conducted a dog sniff, revealing a bag of methamphetamine.
Ultimately, the officers charged Rodriguez with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. Rodriguez then moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the duration of the traffic stop and use of the K-9 was unlawful. Finding that the delay caused by the dog sniff did not violate the Fourth Amendment, the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska denied Rodriguez’s request. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the District Court’s opinion and ruled that the delay caused by the dog sniff was not an unreasonable seizure, but rather a de minimis intrusion authorized under the Fourth Amendment. However, the Eighth Circuit did not decide the question of whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to continue the detention because the court found the seizure reasonable—a finding sufficient for the court to reach its holding.
Contrarily, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the prolongation of a traffic stop—absent reasonable suspicion—as a de minimis intrusion. In United States v. Perkins, the Eleventh Circuit held that the continued post-traffic stop detention of an individual, absent reasonable suspicion that the individual has engaged in additional criminal activity, violates the Fourth Amendment. The opinions of these two circuits show the differing approaches regarding when a traffic stop ends and whether the officer can prolong the traffic stop. Does a traffic stop end as soon as an officer hands over the ticket or warning, or is an officer’s extension of a stop really just a de minimis intrusion?
Subsequently, the Supreme Court granted writ of certiorari to address this issue of whether prolonging a traffic stop absent reasonable suspicion results in an unlawful seizure. After hearing oral argument on the matter, many were left wondering about the final outcome of the case. What will the Supreme Court hold?
The Supreme Court’s precedent has established that a dog sniff is not a search under the Fourth Amendment and that officers can conduct unrelated inquiries during a traffic stop. The Supreme Court’s decision in Illinois v. Caballes and United States v. Place established that a dog sniff is sui generis and that it does not intrude upon a person’s expectation of privacy. However, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Florida v. Jardines held that a dog sniff, which occurred on a residential front porch, constituted an illegal search. Additionally, the Supreme Court has authorized officers to conduct some inquiries that are unrelated to the original purpose of a traffic stop. For example, officers can conduct warrant checks and records checks of individuals during a traffic stop, even though the individual has been stopped for a broken taillight or speeding. As the Court held in Arizona v. Johnson, an officer’s inquiries that are unrelated to the justification of the traffic stop do not convert that stop into an unconstitutional seizure, so long as the inquiries do not measurably extend the stop. Is a dog sniff one of these justified unrelated inquiries?
While all individuals have an interest in protection from unreasonable searches and seizures, the bright-line rule for which the Petitioner in Rodriguez v. United States advocates—that officers cannot conduct dog sniffs after the completion of a traffic stop—raises a host of additional issues. For instance, couldn’t officers just delay handing over a traffic stop citation in order to conduct a dog sniff? Has a dog sniff become a legitimate part of a traffic stop? These problems were highlighted during oral argument, as the Justices grappled with whether an officer can continue to detain an individual when the justification for the stop is completed and no reasonable suspicion exists to justify holding the person.
The Eighth Circuit’s de minimis reasoning is harmful to individuals’ Fourth Amendment protections and is not clearly supported by the Supreme Court’s precedent. Rather, the Supreme Court held in Arizona v. Hicks, that just moving a turntable in order to record serial numbers, was a search. While this case dealt with searches, the Supreme Court still stated that a search is a search. Likewise, a seizure is a seizure, and a de minimis intrusion still intrudes on the fundamental right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Such an intrusion, especially after a traffic stop has been completed, should in the least be justified by reasonable suspicion. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision will provide a necessary clarification on whether officers can prolong a traffic stop in order to conduct the dog sniff.