Wednesday, January 21, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Rodriguez v. United States, the case testing whether an officer can prolong a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff, even if the officer lacks suspicion for the sniff.
After arguments--and maybe even before--it's clear that the problem is line drawing. On balance, that maybe more of a problem for the government than for Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, represented by Shannon O'Connor, argued for a bright line rule: when the purpose of the stop is over, any after-occuring dog sniff requires new individualized suspicion or probable cause, even if the Court has held that an officer may conduct a dog sniff during the stop. The government, on the other hand, represented by Ginger Anders, argued for a de minimis extension--that the Fourth Amendment permits a reasonable de minimis extension of a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff.
But when is the purpose of a stop over? And how to define a de minimis extension? Those problems dominated the arguments today.
O'Connor had trouble defending her bright-line rule, and even seemed to shift once or twice. She argued that an officer cannot detain a driver beyond the point when the purpose of the stop ends, even if it ends in a mere warning. But O'Connor received significant push-back from Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Alito, all of whom presented hypotheticals designed to show that that bright line wasn't always so bright. Moreover, it wasn't clear that O'Connor's bright line really mattered. For example, Justice Scalia pointed out that an officer can investigate all kinds of things during a traffic stop--whether a driver's license is valid, whether the car is stolen, etc., even a dog sniff--and wondered why then the officer couldn't also conduct a dog sniff after the purpose of the stop ended.
Justice Kennedy seemed to push O'Connor toward an even sharper bright line, that the purpose of the traffic stop ends at the issuing of a ticket. O'Connor at one time seemed to adopt it, but that only got her in more trouble. That's because the issuing-a-ticket position has obvious problems: traffic stops don't always end with tickets, or, as Justice Alito pointed out, any clever officer would simply delay handing over the ticket until after a dog sniff. Justice Scalia pounced, Chief Justice Roberts weighed in ("What if the officer says I need to think about this for a while?"), and even Justice Ginsburg expressed reservations with the issuing-a-ticket line.
So O'Connor backed off and reverted to her earlier position that the stop ends when the purpose of the stop ends. But that position fared no better.
But if the Court had problems with O'Connor's lines, it had maybe even more problems with the government's lines. The government argued that the Fourth Amendment permits a de minimis extension beyond the purpose of the stop. But defining "de minimis" proved difficult. It wasn't clear whether this position had the support of even Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia (although it may have had the support of Justice Alito). Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that a dog sniff will probably last longer than the stop itself--is that a de minimis extension? Justice Breyer pointed out that Anders's de minimis rule isn't easily enforceable--what do you tell the police to do? Justice Kagan argued that a dog sniff outside the bounds of the stop is something like an officer taking a cigarette break--unreasonable.
Part of the problem for the government is how the case came to the Court: the lower court said that a de minimis extension was reasonable. That holding assumes that there's a point at which the purpose of the stop ends, and a de minimis extension afterward. If so, and if the courts can define that point, then any extension really is beyond the purpose of the stop. And a Fourth Amendment violation for a de minimis period is still a Fourth Amendment violation. (And what's de minimis, anyway? That's hard to say, and, for dog sniffs, may run longer than the stop itself--as Chief Justice Roberts pointed out.) This problem seemed to trouble enough Justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, that the Court may well go with Rodriguez.