21 April 2015

Law in Plain English: Rodriguez v. United States

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogRodriguez v. United States

Argument: Jan 21 2015 (Aud.)

Background: A Nebraska K-9 police officer stopped Dennys Rodriguez's vehicle for veering onto the shoulder of the highway. The officer gathered Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, and returned to his vehicle to complete a records check. He returned to the vehicle and issued a written warning. The officer then asked for permission to walk his dog around Rodriguez’s vehicle. When Rodriguez refused consent, the officer instructed him to exit the vehicle. Rodriguez then exited the vehicle and stood in front of the patrol car while they waited for a second officer to arrive. A few minutes later, a deputy sheriff arrived, and a minute later, Struble walked the dog around the outside of Rodriguez’s car. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs halfway through the second pass, approximately twenty or thirty seconds later. All told, seven or eight minutes had passed from the time the officer had issued the written warning until the dog indicated the presence of drugs. A search of the vehicle revealed a large bag of methamphetamine. Rodriguez was charged with possessing with intent to distribute methamphetamine. The district court denied Rodriguez’s motion to suppress the evidence, holding that the delay caused by the dog sniff did not violate Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures. The Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding that the seven- or eight-minute delay was reasonable because the officer waited for a second officer to arrive to ensure his safety, and that the the delay was a de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez's personal liberty.

Issue: The question before the Court is whether an officer may extend an already completed traffic stop for a canine sniff without reasonable suspicion or other lawful justification.

Holding: In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that absent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.
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