Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Supreme Court Short Circuits Police's Ability To Use Traffic Stops To Witch Hunt

Police officers violate the Constitution when they extend an otherwise completed traffic stop to allow time for a trained dog to sniff for drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled.

The justices, voting 6-3, said that officers must let the driver leave unless they have specific reasons to suspect the car is carrying contraband.

"Police authority ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are -- or reasonably should have been -- completed,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

The core of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion in Rodriguez v. United States is that Police cannot extend a traffic stop even for a minute without a new justification for extending their search.

For those unfamiliar with Rodriguez vs United States here is an overview.

Dennys Rodriguez was driving with a passenger, Scott Pollman, when he was pulled by an officer for veering onto the shoulder of a Nebraska highway.

During a twenty minute time lapse, the officer spoke to Rodriguez and Pollman. He called for a second  officer conducted a records check on the two men and issued Rodriguez a warning ticket.

After issuing the ticket, the officer prolonged the stop until the second officer arrived. A police dog was walked around the car. The dog discovered methamphetamines in the car, Rodriguez was arrested.

That arrest led to a five-year prison sentence.

Ginsburg's opinion seeks to stop Police Officers from using traffic stops as fishing expeditions.

“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,” Justice Ginsburg explained in a majority decision joined by five other justices.

“Because addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, it may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.’ Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.”

The opinion does not and cannot define a time frame for an average traffic stop. The average length of time for a stop is subjective to the components of the actual stop. A traffic stop itself could extend for well past 15 minutes for something as simple as a slow NCIS license check by the officer.

Where the Ginsburg opinion comes into play is at the conclusion of the traffic stop. Absent any visible unlawful materials, weapons, actions or license check results, the driver of the vehicle should be free to go.

Cases that crop up from prolonged traffic stops will prove challenging for the courts they land in. Judges will have to evaluate the validity of the events that contribute to extended stops and determine if officers intentionally allowed those events to prolong the stops.

The thing to remember is once the traffic stop is concluded in whatever manner the officer chooses, the driver should be free to drive away.  

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