The United States Supreme Court made it clear that once a traffic stop has been completed, without further reasonable suspicion, an extended stop is an unreasonable seizure, therefore illegal. On the other hand, the Court also made it clear that if a dog sniffs a car while being issued a ticket and that sniff doesn’t add anytime to the stop then the sniff is NOT an illegal seizure. Timing is everything.
In the present case, Denny Rodriguez was stopped by an officer for driving his Mercury Mountaineer on a highway shoulder and then jerking it back on the road, which is against the law in Nebraska. The officer checked Rodriguez’s license and his passengers, then issued a warning for the traffic offense. The officer gave Rodriguez his license, registration, and written warning back. Then the officer asked Rodriguez if he could walk his dog around his vehicle. Rodriguez refused and the officer detained him until backup arrived. The officer then had his dog walk around the vehicle and the dog alerted to the presence of drugs in the vehicle. The officer searched the vehicle and found methamphetamine. Between seven and eight minutes went by from the time the officer issued the warning and when the dog alerted. Again, timing is everything.
So how much time does an officer have to complete a traffic stop without violating the Constitution? A reasonable amount of time, which is not defined but the Court gives us clues to what it means. A reasonable traffic stop will allow an officer the time to check the driver’s license, determine whether there are outstanding warrants, inspect the vehicle registration, and proof of insurance. The Court held, “a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.”
What does all this mean? You may remember I shared a brilliant law review article that was published in 2012 that does a line by line analysis of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems, Verse 2. You know the line in 99 Problems, “We’ll see how smart you are when the K-9’s come”, right?! The Supreme Court tells us without reasonable suspicion waiting for the K-9’s to come is an illegal seizure.
If you read that article you will see that Caleb Mason correctly predicted what the Supreme Court would do three years before Rodriguez v. United States was published. Mason states,
We’ll see how smart you are when the K-9s come . . . A sniff by a drug-sniffing dog is not a “search,” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. Dog sniffs are “sui generis,” the Court has held—they’re unique in that they don’t reveal any information about the contents of the object sniffed except the presence of contraband, as to which you have no privacy right. Thus, if the police have a dog ready to sniff your car when they pull you over for a traffic violation, you have no basis for objecting to the sniff. And, of course, if the dog does alert to the car, that is probable cause, so the police can then search the whole car. That’s what the officer wanted to do with Jay-Z, but the K-9 unit wasn’t there when he was pulled over, and was late arriving. And this brings us to the final legal issue implicated by the song: excessive prolongation of a traffic stop. A traffic stop is a legitimate seizure of the person, for purposes of investigating the violation of the traffic law and writing up the citation. But it cannot be prolonged for longer than reasonably necessary to complete that legitimate activity. If in fact the patrol car’s computer is slow, so you have to sit there for ten minutes while the cop runs your license, that’s one thing. But increasingly, given dashboard cameras and records of department computer activity, that sort of “delay” is getting harder to fudge. And the Fourth Amendment rule is very clear: if the police detain you after they’ve finished processing the ticket—or if they simply dawdle over the ticket processing for an unreasonable length of time—in order to get a K-9 team there, then the eventual dog sniff will be the fruit of an illegal detention, and any evidence found will be suppressed. The officer in Jay-Z’s case apparently knew this, and so released Jay-Z after the stop when the K-9 unit he’d called was late in arriving. Of course, if, during the traffic stop, you provide the officer with reasonable suspicion that you’re smuggling, then the traffic stop becomes a Terry stop for the purpose of investigating the suspected smuggling. And then it can be extended—not indefinitely, but for a few minutes, anyway, depending on the circuit. Courts will uphold reasonable suspicion for all the usual reasons—but there still has to be something beyond the traffic stop itself. This is a crucial distinction that all cops and perps need to be aware of, and be prepared to litigate.
I know most of you haven’t past the bar but now you know a little bit. Thanks for reading along.
i. Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. _ (2015)
ii. It’s against the law in South Carolina too!
iii. Jay-Z’s 99 PROBLEMS, VERSE 2: A CLOSE READING WITH FOURTH AMENDMENT GUIDANCE FOR COPS AND PERPS
iv. Caleb Mason is the author of the article referenced in footnote iii.