Law School Case Brief
Rodriguez v. United States - 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015)
A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation. As a relatively brief encounter, a routine traffic stop is more analogous to a so-called Terry stop than to a formal arrest. Like a Terry stop, the tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s mission, to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns. Because addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, it may last no longer than is necessary to effectuate that purpose. Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are, or reasonably should have been, completed.
Officer Struble, a K-9 officer, stopped petitioner Rodriguez for driving on a highway shoulder, a violation of Nebraska law. After Struble attended to everything relating to the stop, including, inter alia, checking the driver's licenses of Rodriguez and his passenger and issuing a warning for the traffic offense, he asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his dog around the vehicle. When Rodriguez refused, Struble detained him until a second officer arrived. Struble then retrieved his dog, who alerted to the presence of drugs in the vehicle. The ensuing search revealed methamphetamine. Seven or eight minutes elapsed from the time Struble issued the written warning until the dog alerted.
Rodriguez was indicted on federal drug charges. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from the vehicle on the ground, among others, that Struble had prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff. The Magistrate Judge recommended denial of the motion. He found no reasonable suspicion supporting detention once Struble issued the written warning. Under Eighth Circuit precedent, however, the magistrate concluded that prolonging the stop by “seven to eight minutes” for the dog sniff was only a de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez's Fourth Amendment rights and was for that reason permissible. The District Court then denied the motion to suppress. Rodriguez entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to five years in prison. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. Noting that the seven or eight-minute delay was an acceptable “de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez's personal liberty,” the appellate court declined to reach the question whether Struble had reasonable suspicion to continue Rodriguez's detention after issuing the written warning. Rodriguez petitioned the United States Supreme Court for certiorari review.
Without reasonable suspicion, does a police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violate the Constitution?
Absent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution's shield against unreasonable seizures.
Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer's mission during a traffic stop typically includes checking the driver's license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile's registration and proof of insurance. These checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly. Lacking the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer's traffic mission.
In concluding that a de minimis intrusion could be offset by the Government's interest in stopping the flow of illegal drugs, the Eighth Circuit relied on Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U. S. 106, 98 S. Ct. 330, 54 L. Ed. 2d 331. The Court reasoned in Mimms that the government's “legitimate and weighty” interest in officer safety outweighed the “de minimis” additional intrusion of requiring a driver, lawfully stopped, to exit a vehicle. The officer-safety interest recognized in Mimms, however, stemmed from the danger to the officer associated with the traffic stop itself. On-scene investigation into other crimes, in contrast, detours from the officer's traffic-control mission and therefore gains no support from Mimms.
The Government's argument that an officer who completes all traffic-related tasks expeditiously should earn extra time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation is unpersuasive, for a traffic stop “prolonged beyond” the time in fact needed for the officer to complete his traffic-based inquiries is “unlawful,” The critical question is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff adds time to the stop.
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