New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

Rodriguez v. United States – Great Search and Seizure Ruling

The United States Supreme Court decided Rodriguez v. United States on April 21, 2015.  The decision enhances Fourth Amendment protections in cases involving motor vehicle stops.

Briefly, Rodriguez, the driver, and his passenger were stopped by a Valley, Nebraska police officer for veering onto the shoulder of a State highway and then jerking back onto the road.  The officer was a K-9 officer who had his police dog with him.  He conducted a records check on the vehicle’s occupants, questioned Rodriguez and his passenger, checked all of the necessary documents, wrote a warning ticket, and returned the documents to the occupants with the warning ticket.  Thus, the main purpose of the initial stop – the investigation of a traffic infraction – was completed.

Nevertheless, the officer did not consider Rodriguez and his passenger free to leave.  He requested permission to walk his dog around the vehicle, and Rodriguez declined.  The officer then instructed Rodriguez to turn off and exit the vehicle, and stand in front of his patrol car to await the arrival of a second officer.  Rodriguez complied, the second officer arrived, the dog was escorted around the vehicle and alerted to the presence of drugs (methamphetamine).  Significantly, approximately seven to eight minutes had passed between the issuance of the warning ticket and the alert by the dog.

Rodriguez moved to suppress the drugs, arguing that the officer had prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff.  A Magistrate Judge initially ruled that no reasonable suspicion supported further detention once the warning ticket was issued, but the seven to eight minute extension of the stop was only a de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez’ Fourth Amendment rights, and was therefore permissible.  Affirming, the District Court noted that the Eighth Circuit had held that dog sniffs conducted within a short time after the completion of a traffic stop were not Constitutionally prohibited if they amounted to de minimis intrusions on personal liberty.

Rodriguez entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed.  The Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding that the delay in this case was an acceptable de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez’ personal liberty.  The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a division among the lower courts as to whether a routine traffic stop, once completed, may be extended to conduct a dog sniff absent reasonable suspicion.

The Court recalled its prior rulings that the Fourth Amendment permitted unrelated investigations that did not lengthen a roadside detention, but that a traffic stop could become illegal if prolonged beyond the time reasonable required to complete the mission or purpose of the stop itself.  An officer can conduct unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful stop, but cannot do so in a manner that prolongs the stop absent the reasonable suspicion typically required to detain an individual.  Here, the court distinguished the usual investigation accompanying a traffic stop (checking documents, etc.), from a dog sniff which is geared toward detecting evidence of criminal activity.  Since a dog sniff is clearly not one of the routine investigative tools employed during a traffic stop, it cannot be characterized as part of the mission of the stop and must be supported by reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Additionally, the Court found that whether the officer conducts the sniff before or after issuing the ticket is not the issue.  What matters is whether the sniff prolongs or adds time to the stop absent the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify it.

Thus, a routine traffic stop must end, and the car and its occupants must be allowed to leave, once the mission of the stop itself has concluded, unless there is reasonable suspicion to justify further detention and investigation.