New Ruling On Traffic Stops From US Supreme Court


In a new opinion released today, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police officers can’t detain people after the conclusion of a traffic stop so that a drug dog can come sniff the car. The case began back in 2012, when a Nebraska officer (who happened to have a drug dog with him) pulled a car over for swerving onto the shoulder. After running the driver’s license and registration, the officer wrote a warning ticket, but then asked the driver permission to go and get his drug dog so he could walk it around the car. The driver refused, and so the officer ordered him to get out of the vehicle and went and got the drug dog. The dog indicated the presence of drugs, and when the officer searched the vehicle he found a large bag of meth.

Side note: I’ve written before about drug dogs and how they can be trained to “indicate” the presence of drugs even when there aren’t any.

The driver moved to suppress the drugs arguing that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the officer detained him for longer than was necessary to complete the traffic stop. Essentially, he argued that once his license and registration were checked, and the officer wrote the warning, he should have been free to leave. Any prolonged detention – making him stay while going to get the drug dog – was unconstitutional.

The prosecution argued that the extension of the stop was ok because it was only seven or eight minutes, and was therefore a de minimis (minimal / inconsequential / tiny) intrusion on the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights. Basically the prosecutors argued for the judge to apply a “balancing test” – weighing the inconvenience of waiting on a drug dog to sniff the car versus the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights. In other words: “But it was only a small violation of his rights! And we found some drugs so it was worth it!”

Up until the case got to the Supreme Court, the prosecution had won. In the ruling released today, the Supreme Court sided with the driver, and held that (unless the officer has independent reasonable suspicion of illegal activity) he can’t detain people for longer than necessary to conduct a traffic stop so that a drug dog can sniff the car.

Why the “unless” caveat? Because the Court didn’t address whether or not the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain the car further, and went out of its way to say so. Also, if an officer can actually demonstrate reasonable suspicion to detain the vehicle further, then the officer can detain the vehicle further after the traffic stop is concluded.

What will happen in the future?

The Supreme Court knows that its decisions tell all the lower courts, as well as police and citizens, what to do, so sometimes they go out of their way to provide some guidance. Here, the Court gave police officers the following … let’s call it an “instruction:”

The reasonableness of a seizure, however, depends on what the police in fact do. In this regard, the Government acknowledges that “an officer always has to be reasonably diligent.” How could diligence be gauged other than by noting what the officer actually did and how he did it? If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of “time reasonably required to complete [the stop’s] mission.” As we said in Caballes and reiterate today, a traffic stop “prolonged beyond” that point is “unlawful.” The critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, as Justice Alito supposes, but whether conducting the sniff “prolongs”—i.e., adds time to—“the stop.” (Pg. 8).

Translation: “Hey officer – if you’re going to use a drug dog do it fast, and delay the traffic stop for a good-sounding reason while you do it.” The Court is telling officers that they can still use drug dogs in traffic stops, as long as they do it without prolonging the traffic stop. So this may mean officers begin taking their time when conducting traffic stops if they want to get the drug dogs out.