Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that police are not allowed to extend a citizen’s detention, during a normal traffic stop, while officers probe for evidence of crimes unrelated to the offense that prompted the initial stop.
In the case before the court, Rodriguez v. U.S., Dennys Rodriguez was given a warning for driving on the shoulder of the highway then forced to wait for almost 10 minutes as police awaited the arrival of a drug-sniffing dog.
After arriving at the scene, the dog alerted, and a subsequent search of the vehicle found methamphetamine.
The issue before the court was whether it was reasonable to extend Rodriguez’s detention on the side of the road for longer than needed to deal with the initial offense, absent reasonable suspicion on the part of the officer.
The court voted 6-3 in favor of Rodriguez, with the majority holding that the stop went beyond what was reasonable under the law and setting precedent for the entire country.
Prior to the decision, the U.S. Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, following precedent, held that “extension of the stop… for the dog sniff was only a de minimus intrusion on Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights and was, therefore, permissible.”
Penning the majority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan, rebuked that contention, holding that detention of a person for any longer than it takes to deal with initial offense, even if only a few minutes, was improper.
"A traffic stop becomes unlawful if prolonged beyond the time in fact needed to complete all traffic-based inquiries," Ginsburg said.
Police are typically allowed to inspect a driver’s license, ask for registration and proof of insurance and check for any outstanding warrants as all of those actions are geared towards ensuring that vehicles are safely operated, according to Ginsburg.
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While “an officer...may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop,” Ginsburg held, “a dog sniff, unlike the routine measures just mentioned, is not an ordinary incident of a traffic stop.”
"A dog sniff, unlike those stock inquiries, lacks the same tie to roadway safety," said Ginsburg.
The decision doesn’t mean that Rodriguez will necessarily be in the clear though. His case will now be remanded back to the lower courts to consider whether police had a reasonable basis, outside of the traffic stop, to suspect Rodriguez of being engaged in drug activity.
The dissenting opinions in the 6-3 decision came from Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
Hopefully the tide is beginning to turn, as potentially indicated by Justice Sonia Sotomayor's skeptical comment's regarding the sacrificing of the Fourth Amendment at the alter of law enforcement; made during oral arguments for this case back in January.
“We can't keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement,” Sotomayor stated. “Particularly when this stop is not incidental to the purpose of the stop. It's purely to help the police get more criminals, yes. But then the Fourth Amendment becomes a useless piece of paper.”
Although there seems to be a continual erosion of our constitutional rights, this time it appears that the Supreme Court has taken an approach that protects citizens from the arbitrary overreach of government.
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Jay Syrmopoulos is an investigative journalist, freethinker, researcher, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs. Jay's work has previously been published on BenSwann.com and WeAreChange.org. You can follow him on Twitter @sirmetropolis, on Facebook at Sir Metropolis and now on tsu.