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BENCH BLOG: Dog days of summer arrive early for US high court

Jean DiMotto is a retired Milwaukee County Circuit Court judge. She served for 16 years, and was on the criminal bench for 12 of those years.

Judge Jean DiMotto retired in 2013 after 16 years on the Milwaukee County Circuit bench and now serves as a reserve judge. She also serves of counsel with Nistler Law Firm. She can be reached at jeandimotto@gmail.com.

For the second time in as many years, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided a dog-sniffing case.

The first, Florida v. Jardines, involved a dog sniffing for drugs on a home’s curtilage. The newest case, Rodriguez v. United States, decided this week, concerned drug-sniffing a vehicle pulled over for a traffic stop.

The case arose just after midnight on a Nebraska highway when a police officer observed a Mercury Mountaineer veer slowly onto the highway’s shoulder and then jerk back onto the roadway. Since it is illegal to drive on a highway shoulder in Nebraska, the cop pulled over the Mountaineer.

The traffic stop

The officer asked the driver, Dennys Rodriguez, why he had had driven onto the shoulder. Rodriguez answered that he swerved to avoid a pothole. He complied with the officer’s request to hand over his license, registration and proof of insurance. The officer ran a record and warrant check.

He returned the documents to Rodriguez and then asked for the passenger’s license. He questioned the passenger about where the men were driving from and where they were going. The passenger replied that they had gone to Omaha to look at a Ford Mustang that was for sale and were now returning to Norfolk, Neb.

The officer then performed a record and warrant check on the passenger and began writing a warning ticket for Rodriguez. Additionally, he called for back-up. He then returned to the Mountaineer to give back the passenger’s license and to explain the warning ticket to Rodriguez. All of this took 21 to 22 minutes.

Although justification for the traffic stop was now “out of the way,” the officer asked Rodriguez for consent to walk the officer’s dog around the Mountaineer.

Rodriguez refused.

The officer then ordered Rodriguez to turn off the ignition, get out of the vehicle and wait at the front of the squad until the second officer arrived.

Rodriguez complied.

The second officer arrived five minutes later. Two to three more minutes elapsed while the first officer retrieved the dog from his squad and circled him around the Mountaineer twice. The dog alerted halfway through the second pass. A search of the Mountaineer turned up a large bag of methamphetamine.

District Court and Circuit decisions

Rodriguez was charged with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. He brought a motion to suppress the drug evidence on the basis that the officer “had prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff.”

A magistrate judge heard the evidence. He found that the sole probable cause to search the Mountaineer was the dog’s alert. Additionally, he found that once the traffic warning was issued there was no longer reasonable suspicion to support Rodriguez’s continued detention.

Nonetheless, he recommended to the District Court judge that the motion be denied because extending a traffic stop “by seven to eight minutes” for the dog sniff was only a de minimus intrusion on Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights and was therefore permissible.”

The District Court judge adopted the magistrate’s factual findings and legal conclusions, agreeing that the additional minutes were “not of constitutional significance.”

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that the several-minute delay constituted an acceptable de minimus intrusion on Rodriguez’s liberty. It expressed its belief that the government’s interest in interdicting the flow of illegal drugs on highways offset the additional length of the intrusion.

Because of its ruling that the length of the intrusion was constitutionally permissible, the Circuit Court did not reach the issue of whether there was reasonable suspicion for the officer to detain Rodriguez after the warning ticket was issued.

U.S. Supreme Court opinion

The court granted certiorari because there was a split among lower federal courts on the issue of extending an otherwise-completed traffic stop for a dog sniff in the absence of reasonable suspicion.

The 6-3 opinion of the court was delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Ginsburg compared routine traffic stops to Terry stops, both being brief and investigatory in nature. Since the purpose of the stop is to address a traffic violation, the stop must end when that purpose is effectuated.

Stated otherwise, “authority for the seizure … ends when the tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been – completed.”

A traffic stop includes the tasks of determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, checking the driver’s license, running a warrant check and inspecting the vehicle’s registration and proof of insurance. These tasks ensure that vehicles are operated safely and responsibly.

In contrast, a dog sniff is not an ordinary part of a traffic stop because it has no connection to roadway safety. Instead, it is aimed at detecting criminal wrongdoing, which is not part of the traffic officer’s mission.

The government argued that a traffic stop may be incrementally prolonged as long as the officer is reasonably diligent in pursuing the traffic-stop mission and the entire duration of the stop is reasonable in relation to the duration of similar traffic stops.

But Ginsburg pointedly noted that this is not about “earn[ing] bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation.” Rather, completing the stop expeditiously simply equates to the amount of time reasonably required to complete the traffic stop’s purpose.

Dissents

In separate dissents, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito argued that the court’s opinion was “unnecessary” because reasonable suspicion existed to do a drug-related dog sniff. The majority, however, made clear that this issue was never addressed by the 8th Circuit and therefore not properly decided by the court.

Thomas also found the decision inconsistent with prior Fourth Amendment jurisprudence and concluded that Rodriguez suffered no Fourth Amendment violation.

Commentary

Ginsburg authored a succinct, focused opinion. Reading it caused me to long for the same from our state Supreme Court.

The jurisprudence announced is sound. It continues the high court’s limitation on law enforcement’s drug detection by dog sniffing.

Traffic stops were wisely compared to Terry stops, a legal framework well known to law enforcement. This should make it easier for officers to realize that an additional quantum of suspicion – related to a criminal, not traffic, matter – is required for a dog sniff at a traffic stop.


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