I recently wrote about the difficult task police and courts are faced with when determining the limitations of search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. This is especially true in light of the recent string of cases seen by the United States Supreme Court to seemingly reinvigorate the constitutional protections afforded by the Fourth Amendment: (1) United States v. Jones, 2012 (finding that installation of a GPS tracking device on a vehicle and use of such device to monitor the vehicle’s movement is a search that triggers Fourth Amendment protections); (2) Riley v. California, 2014 (holding that a warrantless search and seizure of the digital contents of a cell phone incident to an arrest is a violation of the Fourth Amendment and therefore unconstitutional); and most recently (3) Rodriguez v. United States, 2015.
Rodriguez v. United States
Rodriguez is based on a traffic stop in Valley, Nebraska involving Officer Struble, a K-9 officer, and Mr. Dennys Rodriguez, who was driving with his passenger, Scott Pollman, when he veered onto the shoulder. In about 20 minutes, Officer Struble was able to speak with Rodriguez and Pollman, conduct a records check on the men, and issue a warning ticket to Rodriguez. However, after issuing the warning, Officer Struble asked if he could perform a drug dog sniff of Rodriguez’s car. When Rodriguez refused to give consent to the search, Officer Struble extended the detention approximately 6 to 7 minutes to allow for a second unit to arrive in order to ensure the safety the officers when performing the dog sniff. When the second unit arrived, Officer Struble and his K-9 partner, Floyd, walked around the car, during which Floyd alerted and provided Officer Struble probable cause to search the vehicle and discover a large bag of methamphetamine.
In a 6-3 decision issued last week on Tuesday, April 21, 2015, Justice Ginsburg wrote for the majority and interpreted the case as asking the Court to determine whether “the Fourth Amendment tolerates a dog sniff conducted after completion of a traffic stop.” However, Justice Thomas, Kennedy, and Alito dissented, arguing that the Court was asked to determine “whether an officer executed a stop in a reasonable manner when he waited to conduct a dog sniff until after he had given the driver a written warning and a backup unit had arrived, bringing the overall duration of the stop to 29 minutes”? The Court’s difference of opinion on how to interpret the issue presented to the Court again highlights the difficulty facing both courts and police when addressing the subtleties of Constitutional protections.
According to the majority, no, the Fourth Amendment protections do not tolerate such an intrusion. Drawing upon the Court’s previous decision in Illinois v. Caballes, 2005, the majority held that “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” because a seizure is justified “only by a police-observed traffic violation, [and] therefore ‘become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission’ of issuing a ticket for the violation.” As Justice Sonia Sotomayor previewed during the January 2015 oral arguments of this case, “we can’t keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement.” Further elaborating on this reasoning, Justice Sotomayor declared, “[p]articularly when this stop is not – 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 the holding in Rodriguez seems definitive and categorical (“Because addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, it may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.’ Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are–or reasonably should have been–completed.”), how much of an impact this decision will have in the real world – outside the confines of the courtroom and legal world – remains unclear. The Court’s decision necessarily left the description of the ‘purpose’ or ‘mission’ of a traffic stop vague, recognizing that the amount of time needed to complete a stop’s ‘mission’ will vary drastically, and the reality is that it is impossible for courts to determine this in advance. Thus, judges and law enforcement officials alike will continue to face challenges when distinguishing between officers who expeditiously completed an ordinary traffic ticket, and an officer who intentionally dragged his feet in order to conduct additional investigations not related to the traffic stop’s ‘mission.’
Also, it is arguably unfortunate that the Court determined “reasonable search and seizure” to include what police officers have traditionally and typically done during traffic stops – checking driver’s licenses, checking for outstanding warrants, running the license plates, checking registration and proof of insurance, and asking various questions of the driver and passengers. This essentially continued the trend of turning “reasonableness” into a term of art, and well-established practice into constitutional rule (as is often the case when dealing with the Fourth Amendment).