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Supreme Court Holds No De Minimis Extension for Dog Sniffs

Today, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case Rodriguez v. United States and held that, without reasonable suspicion, a police officer may not extend a traffic stop for crime-related purposes beyond what is reasonably required to complete the traffic-related purposes of the stop, even for a de minimis amount of time. Rodriguez came from the 8th Circuit and involved the extension of a traffic stop for 7-8 minutes to conduct a dog sniff after issuing a warning. The 8th Circuit held that this extension was a de minimis delay and permissible. But other states were split on this issue. Some had held that a delay of 9 minutes was too long, and some did not allow any delay at all, no matter how short.

In Rodriguez, the officer pulled over the defendant after he saw him slowly veer onto the shoulder of the road shortly after midnight (as many traffic stops for impaired driving might begin). When the officer asked the defendant why he had veered off the road, he replied that he had been trying to avoid a pothole. The officer also asked the defendant where he had been, and the defendant stated that he and the passenger had been looking at a car for sale in Omaha and were returning to Norfolk (about 2 hours away). While the officer was completing the records check of the defendant and the passenger, he called for a second officer. After checking the records, the officer issued a written warning to the defendant. The warning was written 21 or 22 minutes after the traffic stop was initiated.

The officer who made the traffic stop was a K-9 officer and had his dog with him at the time of the stop. After issuing the warning, the officer asked if the dog could walk around the defendant’s car. The defendant refused, and the officer told the defendant to get out of the car. The defendant complied and stood by the officer’s car. The officer waited until the second officer arrived before conducting the dog sniff out of concern for his safety since there were two people in the defendant’s car. The second officer arrived 5 or 6 minutes after the warning was issued. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs soon thereafter. Seven or 8 minutes passed between the time the warning was issued and when the dog alerted as to the presence of drugs.

The defendant was later convicted of possessing with intent to distribute methamphetamine. The defendant did not challenge the validity of the initial traffic stop but argued that the officer lacked reasonable suspicion to continue his detention. The 8th Circuit held that the 7 or 8 minute delay was reasonable under the circumstances and “constituted a de minimis intrusion on [the defendant’s] personal liberty.” Therefore, it did not consider whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to continue his detention.

The Supreme Court began its analysis by stating that “a routine traffic stop is more analogous to a so-called Terry stop than to a formal arrest.” Therefore, “the tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns.”

The Court acknowledged that the previous cases of Illinois v. Caballes (2005) and Arizona v. Johnson (2009) permit  “unrelated investigations that [do] not lengthen the roadside detention” under the Fourth Amendment. However, if a traffic stop “is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a warning ticket,” it can become unlawful.

The Court’s opinion then details what actions besides issuing a traffic ticket are included in the officer’s mission of a routine traffic stop. “Typically such inquiries involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” The rationale behind permitting these actions is that “[t]hese checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.” The Court then distinguished a dog sniff from these “ordinary inquiries” because it lacks “the same close connection to roadway safety.”

In permitting a de minimis delay, the Eighth Circuit relied upon a 1977 case in which the Supreme Court “reasoned that the government’s legitimate and weighty interest in officer safety outweighs the de minimis additional intrusion of requiring a driver, already lawfully stopped, to exit the vehicle.” The Eighth Circuit used this reasoning to conclude that a de minimis delay similarly could be offset by the Government’s “strong interest in interdicting the flow of illegal drugs along the nation’s highways.” The Court distinguished the interest of “interdicting the flow of illegal drugs” from the interest of officer safety because “the government’s officer safety interest stems from the mission of the stop itself.”

The Court also addressed the Government’s argument that the reasonableness of the total time of the stop should be examined. The Court equated this argument to allowing “an officer [to] earn bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation” “by completing all traffic-related tasks expeditiously.” Instead, “an officer always has to be reasonably diligent.” “If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of time reasonably required to complete the stop’s mission.” Therefore, a traffic stop “prolonged beyond” either the amount of time actually required to complete the stop’s mission or the amount of time which reasonably should be required to complete the stop’s mission is unlawful.

The trial court in Rodriguez determined that the extension of the traffic stop for the dog sniff was not supported by reasonable suspicion. However, the court of appeals did not make this inquiry, deeming it “unnecessary.” Therefore, the Supreme Court remanded the case, leaving the issue of reasonable suspicion open for inquiry by the court of appeals.

If you have been subjected to a traffic stop and charged with impaired driving, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman Car Accident & Injury Lawyers (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.

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