Criminal Law and Procedure

Jay Shapiro on Rodriguez v. United States: The Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on the Reasonableness of a Traffic Stop Extended for a Canine Sniff

Rodriguez v. United States presents an important issue concerning permissible police conduct during a traffic stop, particularly: after a law enforcement officer has completed a traffic infraction stop, does the continued detention of the driver to conduct a dog sniff, without probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that the vehicle contains contraband, violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures?

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The Supreme Court heard argument on January 21, 2015, in Rodriguez v. United States, No. 13-9972, 2013 U.S. Briefs 9972 [lexis.com subscribers may access Supreme Court briefs for this case], a traffic stop case that presents an important issue concerning permissible police conduct during the stop, and, the question of the duration of the stop.

Rodriguez's question presented defined the issue:

After a law enforcement officer has completed a stop for a traffic infraction, does the continued detention of the driver to conduct a dog sniff, without probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe that the vehicle contains contraband, violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures?

The underlying facts of Rodriguez are not complicated and, in fact, not uncommon. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit described that shortly after midnight on March 27, 2012, the car being driven by Rodriguez on a Nebraska highway was stopped by a police officer when he observed it swerve onto the side of the road and then back into the lane of traffic. After the stop, Rodriguez identified himself and explained that he had gone off the road to avoid a pothole. According to the officer, Rodriguez's passenger, Scott Pollman, gave his name but did not make eye contact with the officer. Rodriguez gave the officer, Morgan Struble, his license, registration and proof of insurance. Struble asked Rodriguez if he would go with him to the patrol car but, after telling him that he did not have to do so, Rodriguez declined and stayed in his car.

Struble ran the records check from his car and then came back to continue his inquiries. He asked Pollman for his identification and asked the two where they had been. According to Pollman, they had gone to Omaha to look at a car that was for sale and were driving back to Norfolk, Nebraska. Struble then returned to the police car, checked on Pollman's identification and called for the assistance of a second officer. Struble did not have a partner. Rather, he was accompanied by Floyd, his narcotics sniffing dog.

The officer gave Rodriguez a written warning; that action occurred no more than twenty-two minutes after the stop. However, Struble then asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his dog around the car, but Rodriguez refused. Consequently, Struble told Rodriguez to get out of the car and they waited for the second officer to arrive. A deputy sheriff came to the scene of the stop within minutes, and by 12:34 a.m., less than thirty minutes after the car was pulled over, Struble walked the dog around the car. The dog reacted positively, indicating the presence of drugs, and a subsequent search disclosed a bag containing a substantial amount of methamphetamine.

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Jay Shapiro is a partner in the New York office of White and Williams LLP. Jay has more than 30 years experience concentrating his practice in litigation matters. He began his legal career as a prosecutor in the Bronx County District Attorney's Office (1980-1988) and later joined the King's County District Attorney's Office (1990-2002) where he became the Deputy District Attorney in charge of the Rackets Division before going into private practice. Mr. Shapiro has tried more than thirty-five cases in state and federal court. In private practice, he has handled litigation involving insurance fraud, white collar crime and Lanham Act (trademark) violations.

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