Supreme Court Addresses Use Of Drug Dogs At Traffic Stops

If a police officer stops you for a minor traffic violation, how long should the officer be permitted to detain you? Suppose the officer issues you a ticket or a warning for the minor traffic violation and then says he wants you to wait while he has a drug dog sniff your car? What do you say? If you say no, can the officer do it anyway?

These are the questions answered by the United States Supreme Court in the recent case of Rodriguez v. United States. Rodriguez was driving on a Nebraska road when he was stopped by Officer Struble for drifting onto the shoulder of the road for a couple seconds. Officer Struble checked the driver’s license of Rodriguez, then checked the driver’s license of his passenger, then issued a warning for the minor traffic offense. After issuing the warning, Officer Struble asked Rodriguez for permission to walk the police dog around the vehicle. Rodriguez declined.

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This is no police drug dog, it’s my dog Rex. He could be a police dog…if he weren’t so spoiled.

Officer Struble further detained Rodriguez until a backup officer arrived. Struble then walked his K-9 around the vehicle of Rodriquez, and the dog alerted the presence of drugs in the vehicle. This occurred approximately seven or eight minutes after the officer issued the warning for the traffic violation. The officers searched the vehicle and found methamphetamine. Rodriguez’ motion to suppress that evidence was overruled by the trial court, and the trial court’s decision was upheld by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Rodriguez appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held: absent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Court reasoned the duration of the detention must by limited to the time necessary to address the traffic violation which warranted the stop. By reaching this conclusion, the court overturned the appellate court’s previous rulings approving prolonged detentions so long as they were ‘de minimis’ extensions of the detention.

The Court’s opinion made clear a traffic stop prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the stop’s initial purpose is unlawful, unless the officer had a reasonable suspicion off criminal activity. The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals for that court to determine whether Officer Struble had a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The decision in Rodriguez, which was split 6-3, is clarifying more than ground-breaking. The Court addressed a very similar issue ten years ago in Illinois v. Caballes. In that case, the Court held a dog sniff during a lawful traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Caballes, however, left unresolved questions regarding the boundaries of dog sniffs. Rodriguez clarifies that one limitation on traffic stop dog sniffs is the duration: the dog sniff cannot prolong the detention.

Although Rodriguez does not involve a DUI/OVI allegation, the principles discussed in the Rodriguez opinion are relevant to Ohio DUI/OVI cases. In fact, the next entry in this blog will discuss the issue of continued detention of a motorist for the purpose of conducting a DUI/OVI investigation.