Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Can An officer Extend a Traffic Stop for a Canine Sniff?
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in Rodriguez v. United States, the case testing whether an officer can extend a traffic stop for a canine sniff, without additional individualized suspicion to justify the sniff. Here's my argument preview from the ABA's Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Just after midnight on March 27, 2012, Dennys Rodriguez and his passenger Scott Pollman were driving west from Omaha, Nebraska, to Norfolk, Nebraska, on Nebraska State Highway 275. Shortly into their trip, Officer Struble, who was patrolling the highway, observed the car’s passenger-side tires pass briefly over the line separating the highway from the shoulder. Officer Struble pulled the car over.
Officer Struble approached the vehicle and obtained Rodrigeuz’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. Officer Struble asked Rodriguez why he had driven onto the shoulder. Rodriguez said he swerved to avoid a pothole. Rodriguez seemed agitated when Officer Struble informed him that driving on the shoulder was a traffic violation. Officer Struble also observed Pollman in the passenger seat and noticed that Pollman seemed nervous.
Officer Struble asked Rodriguez to step out of the vehicle. Rodriguez complied. Officer Struble then asked Rodriguez to accompany him to his patrol car so that he could complete some paperwork. Rodriguez asked if he had to go to Officer Struble’s patrol car; Officer Struble said “no”; and Rodriguez said that he would rather sit in his own car. Officer Struble later testified that “in his experience” declining to sit in his patrol car was a “subconscious behavior that people concealing contraband will exhibit.”
Officer Struble returned to his patrol car (without Rodriguez) and called in a request for a records check on Rodriguez.
Officer Struble then returned to Rodriguez’s vehicle, this time to talk to Pollman. Officer Struble asked Pollman for his identification; he also asked Pollman about their trip. Pollman told Office Struble that he and Rodriguez drove from Norfolk to Omaha to look into buying an older-model Ford Mustang. They decided against buying the car, however. Officer Struble asked Pollman if he saw a picture of the car before making the trip; Pollman said that he had not.
Officer Struble returned to his patrol car. Office Struble was suspicious that Rodriguez and Pollman would drive to Omaha to look into purchasing a car without seeing a picture of it first. He was also suspicious that Rodriguez and Pollman would drive the long distance from Norfolk to Omaha late on a Tuesday night. Office Struble had a drug-detection dog in his car, and, based on his suspicions, he decided that he would “walk [his] dog around the vehicle regardless of whether [Rodriguez] gave [him] permission or not.” But he wanted a second officer to act as a back-up, because there were two persons involved in the stop. Officer Struble requested a records check on Pollman and began writing a warning ticket for Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder.
Officer Struble returned to Rodriguez’s vehicle (for the third time). He returned the documents to Rodriguez and Pollman and issued a written warning ticket to Rodriguez. Officer Struble gave the ticket to Rodriguez at about 12:25 a.m. At this point, Officer Struble had taken “care of all the business” of the traffic stop and had “got[ten] all the reason for the stop out of the way.”
Nevertheless, Officer Struble did not let Rodriguez go. Instead, he asked Rodriguez if Rodriguez had an issue with Officer Struble walking his dog around the car. Rodriguez replied that he did have an issue with that. Officer Struble then directed Rodriguez to turn off the engine, exit the vehicle, and stand in front of the vehicle until a second officer arrived.
Officer Struble’s back-up officer arrived at about 12:33 a.m. About seven or eight minutes after Officer Struble issued the warning ticket to Rodriguez, Officer Struble walked his dog around Rodriguez’s vehicle. The dog alerted, the officers searched the vehicle, and the officers found a bag of methamphetamine.
Rodriguez was charged with possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine in violation of federal law. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from his vehicle, arguing that Officer Struble violated his Fourth Amendment rights by detaining him for a dog sniff without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The district court denied Rodriguez’s motion, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.
Under the Fourth Amendment, an officer can make a brief investigative stop, like a traffic stop, based on particularized and objective “reasonable suspicion” of illegal activity. For example, an officer can stop a vehicle after observing a driver violate a traffic law. But the stop must be related in scope to the officer’s justification for it. This means that the officer may detain the driver only for the period required to complete the tasks related to the original justification for the stop, for example, to run a records check, to interview a driver, to write a ticket, or even to conduct a dog sniff. The stop satisfies the Fourth Amendment if it is reasonable, that is, if it is reasonably related to the justification for the stop.
But state and federal courts split over what should happen after an officer completes the tasks directly related to the original stop. Some courts say that detention beyond this point constitutes a separate seizure, requiring independent and separate justification. Others, like the Eighth Circuit in this case, say that detention beyond this point is an extension of the original stop, so long as the nature and duration of the overall stop is reasonable, because the additional detention constitutes only a de minimis intrusion on the detainee’s personal liberty.
The parties wrangle over which approach is correct. They agree that an officer may conduct a dog sniff of the outside of a vehicle during an otherwise lawful traffic stop. The Supreme Court held as much in Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005). But they disagree about whether a dog sniff can prolong a stop, even for a short period of time. Central to this dispute is the standard the Court should use to judge the prolonged stop—independent individualized suspicion of a different illegal activity (as Rodriguez would have it), or the overall reasonableness of the stop (as the government argues).
Rodriguez argues that the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to make a traffic stop based, as here, on probable cause of illegal activity. But he claims that the stop must be reasonably related to the circumstances that justified the stop in the first place and no longer than necessary to effectuate that purpose. Rodriguez says that an officer can use a drug dog to conduct a sniff if the sniff does not delay completion of the tasks related to the traffic violation. But he contends that an officer cannot expand the boundaries of a traffic stop in order to conduct a sniff. Rodriguez says that once the officer has completed all the tasks required during a lawful traffic stop, the driver is free to go, unless the officer has reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity.
Rodriguez claims that these principles establish a bright-line rule—that a traffic stop ends when an officer completes the tasks related to the traffic violation, and that any detention beyond that point, no matter how brief, is unreasonable (and thus violates the Fourth Amendment) unless the additional detention is independently justified by individualized suspicion. He says that this rule would provide guidance to officers in the field and protect innocent drivers from suspicionless intrusions while at the same time giving officers plenty of time to conduct valid dog sniffs during a lawful detention.
Rodriguez argues that the Eighth Circuit’s reasons for its de minimis exception to these rules are flawed. He claims that the Eighth Circuit wrongly assumed that the line marking the end of a traffic stop is “artificial,” and that under a legitimate reasonableness standard the Fourth Amendment would allow a dog sniff that could have occurred within the scope of the traffic stop to occur shortly after the stop. Rodriguez says that the line is a constitutional one, and not “artificial,” and that any other approach would allow the officers to determine the end of a traffic stop for Fourth Amendment purposes. Rodriguez also claims that the Eighth Circuit was wrong to say that a dog sniff is similar to ordering a driver out of a car during a stop—a valid de minimis intrusion under Pennsylvania v. Mimms. 434 U.S. 106 (1977). Rodriguez claims that ordering a driver out of a car during a stop justified by probable cause (as in Mimms) is far different than conducting a dog sniff after a stop based on no cause at all. He also says that a dog sniff is far more intrusive than an order to get out of a car. Finally, Rodriguez claims that the Eighth Circuit wrongly concluded that an officer may conduct a suspicionless search using a dog sniff, because a dog sniff is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. Rodriguez says that the dog sniff in his case violated the Fourth Amendment, because it required his continued detention even after the justification for the stop expired (and not for any reasons having to do with the dog sniff as such).
Rodriguez argues that under his bright-line rule, the Court should reverse the Eighth Circuit’s decision. He says that Officer Struble had no objectively reasonable basis for detaining him after completing the tasks related to the justification for the initial stop. He claims that any additional facts that Officer Struble considered suspicious (and that might independently justify continued detention) are “consistent with innocent travel and easily explained by the circumstances of the stop.” Rodriguez contends that because Officer Struble had no independent justification for his continued detention after he completed the tasks related to the justification for the initial stop, the dog sniff violated the Fourth Amendment.
The government argues that Officer Struble’s dog sniff was a reasonable incident to the traffic stop, even if it briefly prolonged the stop, because the overall duration of the stop was objectively reasonable. The government says that under the Fourth Amendment an officer can conduct a number of inquiries before resolving a traffic violation, just so long as the stop does not run an unreasonably long time. For example, the government claims that an officer can conduct inquiries related to the traffic stop, like verifying the validity of a driver’s license and registration or conducting a background check. The government claims that an officer can also conduct inquiries into unrelated criminal activities, even without reasonable suspicion, like asking passengers about matters unrelated to the traffic stop or conducting a dog sniff. Again, the government says that the test for these inquiries, and their effects on the duration of the stop, is the overall reasonableness of the stop.
The government argues that the sequence of an officer’s permissible tasks during a stop should not matter. In particular, the government contends that an officer’s issuing a traffic ticket before a dog sniff does not alone render that dog sniff unconstitutional. Instead, the government claims that the Court should apply a test of overall reasonableness and look to the total duration of the stop (compared to the duration of stops under similar circumstances), the proportion of the stop dedicated to the dog sniff, and the officer’s diligence throughout.
The government contends that Rodriguez’s argument for a bright-line rule has several problems. For one, the government says that a bright-line rule prohibiting a dog sniff after an officer issues a ticket would not reduce delays in the stop; it would only force an officer to re-sequence his or her tasks related to the stop (by conducting the dog sniff before issuing a ticket). The government claims that this would unduly constrain officers’ discretion to conduct inquiries in the order warranted by the particular stop. For another, the government contends that a bright-line rule, in treating the motorist like a newly pulled-over motorist after the officer issues a ticket, ignores the fact that the officer previously detained the motorist on probable cause that he or she committed a traffic violation. The government says that its test, overall reasonableness, does not have these problems. The government claims that lower courts have applied this test without difficulties to dog sniffs conducted both before and after an officer issues a ticket.
Applying its overall reasonableness test, the government argues that the dog sniff in this case did not unreasonably prolong Rodriguez’s traffic stop. The government claims that the overall duration (about 29 minutes) was within the range of other similar traffic stops. It says that the seven- or eight-minute delay to conduct the dog sniff was not an unreasonably large portion of the stop. Moreover, the government contends that the delay was warranted by Officer Struble’s need for backup. And the government says that Officer Struble acted diligently throughout the stop.
Finally, the government argues that Rodriguez’s detention to conduct a dog sniff was independently justified by Officer Struble’s reasonable suspicion of other unlawful activity.
This case will resolve a split in the federal and state courts over whether the Fourth Amendment allows a de minimis detention beyond an officer’s original traffic stop. (Indeed, as Rodriguez points out in his cert. petition, the split reached this very case: Rodriguez’s case would have turned out differently if it had been tried in Nebraska state court instead of in a Nebraska federal court.)
On the one hand, the case goes to the duration of a traffic stop, and an officer’s ability to conduct additional investigations (like a dog sniff) after he or she completed the tasks directly related to the original stop. Rodriguez’s bright-line rule could potentially shorten stops and restrict an officer’s ability to conduct these investigations; the government’s overall reasonableness approach could lengthen stops (at least incrementally, as here) and give an officer more flexibility in conducting additional investigations.
But on the other hand, the case may not significantly affect either the duration of a stop or an officer’s ability to conduct a dog sniff in most cases. That’s because, as the government argues, even a ruling for Rodriguez might only force officers to re-sequence their activities during a traffic stop, for example, to conduct a dog sniff before the officer issues a ticket.