Today's your lucky day, Jesse.
Lucky Dennys Rodriguez. Pulled over for (briefly) driving in the shoulder lane by officer Morgan Struble one night in Nebraska, Rodriguez and his passenger must have thought they had dodged a bullet when Struble prepared to let them go with a written warning. (See
, they kinda had a bag of methamphetamine in the car as well.)
But then came Floyd, Struble's drug-sniffing dog who had been waiting in the front seat of the car. It had taken about 22 minutes for the initial traffic stop, and now Struble told Rodriguez that he wanted to give Floyd a little walk around the car. Rodriguez did not consent. Struble did it anyway, and so about 7-8 minutes after the traffic stop was complete, Floyd sniffed the drugs and Rodriguez was arrested. (Unlike two years ago, Floyd's competence is not at issue here.)
Rodriguez sought to suppress the introduction of the meth into evidence, claiming it was the product of an unconstitutional search. And the court, in a 6-3 decision today, agreed with him. See, it would have been totally okay had Floyd done his business during the traffic stop portion of the events, but extending the duration of the stop to cover non-traffic matters is something the Fourth Amendment does not allow.
Why? And was it the six you'd expect against the three you'd expect? Join me below the fold.
Yes, this one breaks down mostly as you'd expect, if you follow the court on these matters. Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion of the court, including the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Yes, they acknowledge, officers can do additional tasks which are required for their safety, or which don't prolong the stop, but that's where the line is drawn:
Traffic stops are “especially fraught with danger to police officers,” so an officer may need to take certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his mission safely. On-scene investigation into other crimes, however, detours from that mission. So too do safety precautions taken in order to facilitate such detours. Thus, even assuming that the imposition here was no more intrusive than the exit order in Mimms, the dog sniff could not be justified on the same basis. Highway and officer safety are interests different in kind from the Government’s endeavor to detect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular.
But what if they do that search really really quickly, asks Eric Holder? No!, responds the Court:
The Government argues that an officer may “incremental[ly]” prolong a stop to conduct a dog sniff so long as the officer is reasonably diligent in pursuing the traffic-related purpose of the stop, and the overall duration of the stop remains reasonable in relation to the duration of other traffic stops involving similar circumstances. Brief for United States 36–39. The Government’s argument, in effect, is that by completing all traffic-related tasks expeditiously, an officer can earn bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation. The reasonableness of a seizure, however, depends on what the police in fact do. In this regard, the Government acknowledges that “an officer always has to be reasonably diligent.” How could diligence be gauged other than by noting what the officer actually did and how he did it? If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of “time reasonably required to complete [the stop’s] mission.” As we said in Caballes and reiterate today, a traffic stop “prolonged beyond” that point is “unlawful.” The critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, as Justice Alito supposes, but whether conducting the sniff “prolongs”—i.e., adds time to—“the stop.”
Justice Thomas pens the lead dissent, basically agreeing with the government that the search, taken as a whole, was reasonable:
Because Rodriguez does not dispute that Officer Struble had probable cause to stop him, the only question is whether the stop was otherwise executed in a reasonable manner. I easily conclude that it was. Approximately 29 minutes passed from the time Officer Struble stopped Rodriguez until his narcotics-detection dog alerted to the presence of drugs. That amount of time is hardly out of the ordinary for a traffic stop by a single officer of a vehicle containing multiple occupants even when no dog sniff is involved. During that time, Officer Struble conducted the ordinary activities of a traffic stop—he approached the vehicle, questioned Rodriguez about the observed violation, asked Pollman about their travel plans, ran serial warrant checks on Rodriguez and Pollman, and issued a written warning to Rodriguez. And when he decided to conduct a dog sniff, he took the precaution of calling for backup out of concern for his safety.
As Caballes makes clear, the fact that Officer Struble waited until after he gave Rodriguez the warning to conduct the dog sniff does not alter this analysis. Because “the use of a well-trained narcotics-detection dog . . . generally does not implicate legitimate privacy interests, ... conducting a dog sniff would not change the character of a traffic stop that is lawful at its inception and otherwise executed in a reasonable manner.” The stop here was “lawful at its inception and otherwise executed in a reasonable manner.”
Moreover, he notes, the officer did have reasonable suspicion to pursue this added search:
Officer Struble testified that he first became suspicious that Rodriguez was engaged in criminal activity for a number of reasons. When he approached the vehicle, he smelled an “overwhelming odor of air freshener coming from the vehicle,” which is, in his experience, “a common attempt to conceal an odor that [people] don’t want . . . to be smelled by the police.” He also observed, upon approaching the front window on the passenger side of the vehicle, that Rodriguez’s passenger, Scott Pollman, appeared nervous. Pollman pulled his hat down low, puffed nervously on a cigarette, and refused to make eye contact with him. The officer thought he was “more nervous than your typical passenger” who “do[esn’t] have anything to worry about because [t]hey didn’t commit a [traffic] violation.”
Officer Struble’s interactions with the vehicle’s occupants only increased his suspicions. When he asked Rodriguez why he had driven onto the shoulder, Rodriguez claimed that he swerved to avoid a pothole. But that story could not be squared with Officer Struble’s observation of the vehicle slowly driving off the road before being jerked back onto it. And when Officer Struble asked Pollman where they were coming from and where they were going, Pollman told him they were traveling from Omaha, Nebraska, back to Norfolk, Nebraska, after looking at a vehicle they were considering purchasing. Pollman told the officer that he had neither seen pictures of the vehicle nor confirmed title before the trip. As Officer Struble explained, it “seemed suspicious” to him “to drive . . . approximately two hours . . . late at night to see a vehicle sight unseen to possibly buy it,” and to go from Norfolk to Omaha to look at it because “[u]sually people leave Omaha to go get vehicles, not the other way around” due to higher Omaha taxes.
(As to this, the majority says: the Court of Appeals didn't reach the reasonable suspicion issue, since they decided the search was reasonable regardless; therefore, it's for them to look at next, not us.)
Justice Alito, as he often does, adds a separate dissent to focus on the reality of police practice, and what he sees as the impracticality of what the court now demands:
This holding is not only arbitrary; it is perverse since Officer Struble chose that sequence for the purpose of protecting his own safety and possibly the safety of others. Without prolonging the stop, Officer Struble could have conducted the dog sniff while one of the tasks that the Court regards as properly part of the traffic stop was still in progress, but that sequence would have entailed unnecessary risk. At approximately 12:19 a.m., after collecting Pollman’s driver’s license, Officer Struble did two things. He called in the information needed to do a records check on Pollman (a step that the Court recognizes was properly part of the traffic stop), and he requested that another officer report to the scene. Officer Struble had decided to perform a dog sniff but did not want to do that without another officer present. When occupants of a vehicle who know that their vehicle contains a large amount of illegal drugs see that a drug-sniffing dog has alerted for the presence of drugs, they will almost certainly realize that the police will then proceed to search the vehicle, discover the drugs, and make arrests. Thus, it is reasonable for an officer to believe that an alert will increase the risk that the occupants of the vehicle will attempt to flee or perhaps even attack the officer. See, e.g., United States v. Dawdy, 46 F. 3d 1427, 1429 (CA8 1995) (recounting scuffle between officer and defendant after drugs were discovered).
In this case, Officer Struble was concerned that he was outnumbered at the scene, and he therefore called for backup and waited for the arrival of another officer before conducting the sniff. As a result, the sniff was not completed until seven or eight minutes after he delivered the warning. But Officer Struble could have proceeded with the dog sniff while he was waiting for the results of the records check on Pollman and before the arrival of the second officer. The drug-sniffing dog was present in Officer Struble’s car. If he had chosen that riskier sequence of events, the dog sniff would have been completed before the point in time when, according to the Court’s analysis, the authority to detain for the traffic stop ended. Thus, an action that would have been lawful had the officer made the unreasonable decision to risk his life became un-lawful when the officer made the reasonable decision to wait a few minutes for backup. Officer Struble’s error—apparently—was following prudent procedures motivated by legitimate safety concerns. The Court’s holding therefore makes no practical sense. And nothing in the Fourth Amendment, which speaks of reasonableness, compels this arbitrary line.
The rule that the Court adopts will do little good going forward. It is unlikely to have any appreciable effect on the length of future traffic stops. Most officers will learn the prescribed sequence of events even if they cannot fathom the reason for that requirement. (I would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall when police instructors teach this rule to officers who make traffic stops.)
And Justice Kennedy agrees with the two of them that the search was reasonable but, like the majority, would punt any analysis on the "reasonable suspicion" secondary argument to the Court of Appeals, where this case now goes.
SCOTUSblog has the case documents.