Recently, the United States Supreme Court decided in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015), that a police officer who prolonged a routine traffic stop for the purpose of having a drug-sniffing dog inspect a vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizures.
The Rodriguez case began when a Nebraska police officer observed Rodriguez’s vehicle veer onto the shoulder of a state highway shortly after midnight. The officer conducted a routine traffic stop, which involved questioning Rodriguez and his passenger, conducting a records check and ultimately issuing a written warning. The officer then asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his drug-sniffing dog “Floyd” around the vehicle. Rodriguez refused.
The officer detained Rodriguez until backup arrived. The officer then walked “Floyd” around the vehicle, at which time Floyd “alerted” to the presence of drugs. A search of the trunk turned up a large bag of methamphetamine. Approximately eight minutes elapsed from the time the officer issued the warning until Floyd alerted to the presence of drugs.
The justices ruled that without reasonable suspicion, police may not extend a routine traffic stop in order to conduct further investigation of suspected criminal activity. Such an extension constitutes an unreasonable seizure under the Fourth Amendment.
The issue is not whether the officer issues a ticket versus a warning, or when exactly in the sequence of events the officer issues a ticket or a warning. Rather, the crucial issue is whether conducting further investigation prolongs the detention beyond the time it should take for the officer to complete tasks related to the original mission of the stop.
The tasks related to most routine traffic stops will include running a license check, checking registration and perhaps checking for warrants or any report that the vehicle is stolen. To prolong the stop beyond the time necessary to complete those routine investigative tasks requires an officer to articulate specifically what about the situation warranted a reasonable belief of criminal activity such that prolonging of the detention was constitutionally justified.
The outcome in Rodriguez would have been different had the officer observed or smelled drugs emanating from the vehicle. In that case, the officer would have reasonable suspicion to prolong the detention for further investigation of criminal activity. Likewise, had Rodriguez granted the officer consent to have Floyd sniff around the vehicle there would have been no basis to challenge the subsequent detention.
It is interesting to note that, in Rodriguez, the officer’s basis for suspecting that criminal activity may have been afoot: that he smelled the “overwhelming odor of air freshener” emanating from the vehicle, that Rodriguez’s passenger appeared nervous and that he questioned the pair’s explanation for their travel – that they had been traveling to look at a vehicle they had considered purchasing – was unconvincing to the District Court to justify prolonging the detention for the dog sniff.
The Rodriguez case underscores the fact-intensive analysis that goes in to determining whether a police officer’s actions after conducting a traffic stop are justified. Despite the fact that “reasonable suspicion” is an extremely low standard, officers are still required to articulate specific reasons justifying a prolonged detention beyond the time necessary for completing tasks related to the original basis for the stop. An officer’s failure or inability to do so creates a basis to challenge the prolonged detention as constitutionally violative.