Landmark Ruling: Police May Not Detain Traffic Violators Longer than Necessary

The Supreme Court once again re-visited the topic of traffic stops (the Court held this past December that evidence obtained from a search at a traffic stop based on a mistake of law was okay).  Its most recent ruling issued on April 21 held that that police may not detain a traffic violator longer than necessary so as to allow police time to conduct a dog sniff for drugs. See Rodriguez v. United States.

On March 27, 2012, defendant Denny Rodriguez was stopped alongside a Nebraska highway for swerving in and out of lanes, by Officer Morgan Struble, who subsequently questioned him, checked his license, registration, and whether he had any outstanding arrest warrants.  He also checked the documents of Rodriguez’s passenger as well.  Twenty minutes later, the officer tried to detain Rodriguez further, to which he objected.  Rodriguez was detained while additional officers and a K-9 unit arrived at the scene.  The K-9 sniffed out a bag of amphetamines and Rodriguez was indicted for possession and intent to distribute methamphetamine and sentenced to five years in prison.  He appealed to the Supreme Court which granted certiorari, and with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking for the 6-3 majority, the Court held that officers may only check a driver’s license, registration, and any outstanding warrants.  The stop becomes “unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a warning ticket.”

What This Means

Because the Supreme Court is the highest court in the U.S., its decision is binding on all states.  This recent ruling puts police on notice that once they stop someone for a valid traffic infraction, a clocks starts ticking that courts can view as an indication that a particular search was reasonable or unreasonable under the 4th Amendment.  Unlike a typical traffic stop which is aimed at enforcing the traffic code, a dog sniff constitutes a 4th Amendment search aimed at detecting evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing. Now, a traffic stop may not be prolonged to wait for a K-9 unit without independently supported reasonable suspicion of a crime.

Reasonable suspicion is a standard of proof that must be met in order for a detainment or search to be lawful, but it is arbitrary to the officer.  It means that based on that particular officer’s training and experience, s/he has reason to believe criminal activity is going on.  It is a lower standard than probable cause, but still allows police to briefly detain a person to investigate him or her.  In both standards of proof, police must be able to articulate specific facts to support their suspicion.

Evidence such as drugs seized in violation of the 4th Amendment at a traffic stop are invalid and inadmissible in court.

San Diego Traffic Stop Rights Lawyer

The Law Offices of David M. Boertje handles all misdemeanor and felony criminal cases including drug charges, or charges based on evidence that has been illegally obtained in violation of your 4th Amendment rights.  We are dedicated to protecting your constitutional rights and freedom, and have successfully represented many defendants, including those with criminal charges stemming from unlawful traffic stops.  If you have been arrested and charged with a crime, contact attorney David Boertje today for a free consultation.