Rodriguez v. United States: Police need reasonable suspicion to extend traffic stops to conduct a drug dog sniff

By: Leslie Barrows October 20, 2015 no comments

Rodriguez v. United States: Police need reasonable suspicion to extend traffic stops to conduct a drug dog sniff

Motorists in Texas have added constitutional protections during traffic stops after the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) tightened the law on April 25, 2015, in the 6-3 opinion in Rodriguez v. United States,[i] stating that police need reasonable suspicion to extend traffic stops to conduct a drug dog sniff. The holding in the case is: “(1) Absent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures; and (2) The determination adopted by the District Court that detention for the dog sniff was not independently supported by individualized suspicion was not reviewed by the Eighth Circuit. That question therefore remains open for consideration on remand.”

“The Rodriguez case started when a Nebraska police officer saw a Mercury Mountaineer driven by Dennys Rodriguez veer onto the shoulder of a state highway just after midnight. The officer, Morgan Struble, performed a routine traffic stop, questioning Mr. Rodriguez and his passenger and running a records check. He then issued Mr. Rodriguez a written warning. That completed the stop, Justice Ginsburg wrote. But Officer Struble then had his drug-sniffing dog, Floyd, circle the vehicle. Floyd smelled drugs and led his officer to a large bag of methamphetamine. About eight minutes elapsed between the written warning and Floyd’s alert.”[ii]

The SCOTUS opinion in Rodriguez limits officers to the initial stop unless they have reasonable suspicion a crime is being committed.

In accordance with the law pursuant to Rodriguez, a police officer is not allowed to detain an individual in a traffic stop beyond the amount of time it takes to investigate and elect whether to issue a citation to a driver or make an arrest. Extensions of traffic stops often involve further investigation as to whether a vehicle might contain illegal contraband and drugs. In Rodriguez, like in many traffic stops, the police detained the motorist longer than the time it took to write a ticket or make an initial arrest, had a crime been committed, so that the drug dogs could come to the scene to sniff the vehicle and surrounding area. If the trained dog indicates a positive presence of drugs it smells, the police then search the vehicle claiming probable cause that there are drugs based on the drug-sniffing dog’s response.

The law following the Rodriguez requires a law enforcement officer to have reasonable and articulable suspicion that the motorist was engaging in criminal activity, before they may extend the traffic stop to bring in a nearby drug dog if they otherwise do not have one with them. Even if the officer effectuating the stop has a drug dog, its use to sniff a vehicle must not take more time than it takes to complete the underlying traffic stop. If the law enforcement officer decides to make a motorist wait for other officers to bring a drug dog to the scene of the traffic stop, the officer must be able to specifically articulate their exact reasonable suspicion that the motorist was engaging in criminal activity.

Reasonable suspicion is determined based on case law and the facts of each individual traffic stop.

What gives rise to being reasonable suspicion depends on the facts and circumstances of each traffic stop. An appearance, odor, or indication that a motorist has or is under the influence of illegal drugs may be sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain someone and ask for the drug dog. However, every traffic stop is unique and it is the job of a criminal defense lawyer to review the evidence and charges to make sure the state proves its case within the requirements of the law. In some cases, individuals represent themselves before the court, without an attorney, which can be challenging if the individual is not well educated on criminal law and procedure.

Many legal scholars and writers are saying they believe this restraint on police stops, and enhancement of an individual’s constitutional shield might be in response to frequent protests and riots in certain U.S. cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. The Barrows Firm follows legal decisions that affect Texans who often consult with the Barrows Firm attorneys on traffic stops and cases involving criminal charges.

If you would like more information about The Barrows Firm, P.C., please contact the firm by calling (817) 481-1583. The Barrows Firm is located downtown Fort Worth at 500 East Belknap Street, near the Tarrant County Courthouse and the Tarrant County Family Law Center.

[i] Rodriguez v. United States, No. 13–9972, 575 U.S. ___ (2015), slip op. at 2–4.

[ii] New York Times, Justices Rule That Police Can’t Extend Traffic Stops, by Adam Liptak, Apr. 21, 2015.

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