United States Supreme Court Rules that Cops May Not Extend a Motor Vehicle Stop to Conduct a Dog Sniff

The United States Supreme Court today ruled that the police may not order a motorist to wait, absent reasonable suspicion, for a K-9 unit to arrive to allow the dog to sniff the vehicle for drugs.  The name of the case is Rodriguez v. United States

In March of 2012, a Nebraska police officer saw the defendant swerve slowly onto the shoulder of a highway.  The officer stopped the defendant and obtained his identifying information (along with the identifying information of the passenger).  The officer issued a written warning to the defendant for a motor vehicle infraction and returned the paperwork he had collected.  At that point, the officer considered the investigation into the motor vehicle infraction to be complete.  However, he asked the defendant if he could walk his dog around the defendant’s vehicle (to see if the dog detected narcotics).  The defendant said no, and the officer ordered him to exit his vehicle to wait for a second officer to arrive.  The second officer appeared several minutes later and the dog was paraded around the car.  On the second pass, the dog alerted to the presence of drugs and the police recovered a bag of methamphetamine.  Seven or eight minutes had passed between the time the defendant had received his written warning and the time the dog alerted to the drugs.  The defendant was indicted for, and subsequently pleaded guilty to, possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of meth.  He was sentenced to serve five years in prison.

Prior to his guilty plea, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the drugs, arguing that their discovery and seizure violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  The trial court denied the motion, concluding that the short wait for the second officer constituted a “de minimis” intrusion that did not violate the Constitution.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed and the Supreme Court, after granting certiorari, reversed.  Justice Ginsburg wrote the opinion for the six-member majority.

Police officers are entitled to stop motor vehicles to investigate traffic violations they witness.  However, once the officers have investigated the infraction and completed their duties related to it (by writing a ticket or a warning, checking the status of the driver’s license, checking for the existence of warrants, and checking for proof of insurance, for example), they no longer have constitutional authority to detain the motorist.  The Court concluded that a dog sniff is not an ordinary part of a traffic stop.  Therefore, a dog sniff that prolongs an ordinary traffic stop, which is what happened in this case, violates the Fourth Amendment.

Justice Thomas wrote the primary dissent.  His central argument was that the arresting officer acted reasonably in waiting for backup to conduct the dog sniff and therefore there was no Fourth Amendment violation.  Justice Thomas also contended that even after the warning had been issued the officer had reasonable suspicion to continue to detain the defendant, based in part on the presence of an overwhelming odor of air freshener (often used to mask the odor of drugs) and the passenger’s nervous demeanor.

The vast majority of cases involving motor vehicle stops and subsequent searches are vulnerable to defendants’ motions to suppress.  If you have been arrested as a result of a police search of your property, you should immediately consult with a criminal defense attorney.