Supreme Court Rules That A Traffic Stop Ends When The ‘Objective’ Is ‘Complete,’ Rather Then Whenever The Officer Feels It Is

Another small win for the Fourth Amendment, thanks to the US Supreme Court. With its ruling in the Rodriguez v. US case, law enforcement officers will have to work just a little bit harder to perform unconstitutional searches during traffic stops.

“A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation” – not more — and “authority for the seizure . . . ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been—completed…” Traffic stops have to be reasonably short, and unless there is reasonable suspicion of some other crime, officers can’t use the stop as a subterfuge for extraneous investigation. Most specifically, says Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion for the Court, officers can’t prolong a traffic stop just to perform a dog-sniffing drug search.

The unanswered question is how long can a traffic stop last before it becomes “prolonged?” The bright line would appear to be that it becomes prolonged if extended past the point a citizen should feel free to go. For instance, if someone’s pulled over for speeding, the instant the officer issues a ticket or warning, the stop is over. Any searches performed past that point (including deploying drug-sniffing dogs) would be a violation of the Fourth Amendment if there’s no probable cause.

In Rodriguez’s case, he was pulled over and issued a ticket. This should have been the end of the encounter, but the officer went on a fishing expedition, hoping to have Rodriguez grant him permission to have a drug dog sniff his vehicle. Rodriguez refused but the officer detained him until another officer arrived and walked the dog around the vehicle anyway. It alerted and a search of the vehicle uncovered a bag of methamphetamines.

The DOJ argued that law enforcement should have the leeway to handle traffic stops in any fashion they see fit, including holding people without cause until they’ve exhausted their options (bringing in other officers, performing K-9 searches), even if they’ve already issued a citation for the offense that predicated the stop. Justice Sotomayor was completely unimpressed by this logic during oral arguments, pointing out that continued deference to law enforcement would turn the Fourth Amendment into a “useless piece of paper.”

This decision makes the Fourth Amendment only slightly less “useless.” A previous decision has already undermined a great deal of Fourth Amendment protections by giving law enforcement the permission to use nearly any reason imaginable to initiate a stop — even nonexistent laws. What this does is forbid law enforcement officers from prolonging stops past the point that they’ve achieved their original objective: the issuance of a ticket or warning (if for a traffic violation). This ruling should turn “Am I free to go?” into a drivers’ mantra.

Officers will often prolong stops by asking permission to do a variety of things, being very careful to phrase it as optional (which it is) while still implying that it probably isn’t (you don’t have anything to hide, right?). “Am I free to go?” can help cut through this clutter. But it probably won’t be enough and it definitely won’t work every time. In fact, this ruling may have helped restore some Fourth Amendment protections, but in doing so, the specifics create a roadmap for unconstitutional searches. Officers just need to explore their options before issuing a citation.

Have the dog there before you hand over the ticket and you get a sniff, no Constitution allowed. Don’t rush the ticket, because nobody knows how long it does, or should, take to complete the core mission. And if the dog happens to show before it’s done, boom, lawful.

Ask those Frisbee questions before you hand over the paperwork. Seek consent while you still have the driver’s license in hand. Smell the car for that “pungent” odor, peer knowingly for that furtive gesture, or stare carefully for those watery and lethargic eyes, before you hand over the papers.

So, we don’t have an answer on the question of how long is too long? What we do have is an endpoint. Everything beyond that is unconstitutional. So, there will be more pressure applied by fishing cops, because consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver. As long as their words say something their implications don’t, it’s all perfectly legal. The longer they can delay “completing” the “objective,” the more time they’ll have to explore their options. According to the Supreme Court, once that citation hits a person’s hands, they’re free to go. But that endpoint might be five minutes or two hours from the initiation of the stop.

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