The Supreme Court Just Limited The Police’s Ability To Search Your Car For Drugs

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Police cannot extend the length of a traffic stop, even very briefly, to conduct a fishing expedition to determine whether the vehicle contains drugs. Though police retain a fair amount of ability to use routine traffic stops to seek out evidence of other crimes, the thrust of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion in Rodriguez v. United States is that they cannot extend a traffic stop even for a minute without a new justification for extending their search.

Dennys Rodriguez was driving with a passenger, Scott Pollman, when an officer pulled him over for veering onto the shoulder of a Nebraska highway. In a little over twenty minutes, the cop spoke to Rodriguez and Pollman, called for a second officer, conducted a records check on the two men, and issued Rodriguez a warning ticket.

After issuing this ticket, however, the cop extended the stop until the second officer arrived, and then led a police dog around the car. After the dog discovered methamphetamine in the car, Rodriguez was arrested and eventually sentenced to five years in prison.

Though the dog sniff only extended the length of the stop for “seven to eight minutes,” Rodriguez holds that even this brief extension is not allowed. “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.”

Yet, while the holding of Ginsburg’s opinion is categorical — no extensions except for limited purposes such as safety concerns related to the original purpose of the stop — it is unclear whether the Court’s decision will meaningfully impact the scope of officers’ authority. Though officers may not prolong a stop beyond the amount of time needed to address a stop’s “mission,” the Court’s description of how much time is needed for such a stop is necessarily quite vague — “If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of ‘time reasonably required to complete [the stop’s] mission.'” Different traffic stops will require different amounts of time for entirely legitimate reasons, and it would be impossible for courts to determine in advance how much time is permissible under the unique circumstance of each police encounter with a driver.

It will no doubt be almost as challenging for judges to distinguish in many cases between an officer who expeditiously processed an ordinary traffic ticket — only to find that the amount of time necessary to complete this task gave another officer enough time to conduct a dog sniff — and an officer who intentionally drags his or her feet in order to buy time for their fellow officer.

Moreover, it is not even clear whether the Court’s decision in Rodriguez will help Mr. Rodriguez himself. The ordinary rule in a police stop is that, while an officer may not have sufficient reason to suspect that a vehicle is carrying drug when the stop begins, the cop may extend the stop if such a reason manifests before the stop is completed. Thus, for example, a cop in a jurisdiction where marijuana is illegal may extend a stop if they smell pot smoke while speaking to a vehicle’s passengers.

Though the magistrate judge who handled this case at the trial level determined that “detention for the dog sniff in this case was not independently supported by individualized suspicion,” Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed with this conclusion in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Samuel Alito. The officer, according to Thomas, “smelled an ‘overwhelming odor of air freshener coming from the vehicle,’ which is, in his experience, ‘a common attempt to conceal an odor that [people] don’t want . . . to be smelled by the police.’ He also observed, upon approaching the front window on the passenger side of the vehicle, that Rodriguez’s passenger, Scott Pollman, appeared nervous.” Thus, Thomas believed that the dog sniff was justified by these new facts discovered after the stop began.

Ginsburg, for her part, did not contest these claims. She simply noted that the court of appeals that heard this case did not rule on this separate question. As such, the “question whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justified detaining Rodriguez beyond completion of the traffic infraction investigation, therefore, remains open for Eighth Circuit consideration on remand.”

In any event, however, Ginsburg’s opinion is a reminder that there are some limits on police activity, even if those limits may be evaded by sufficiently creative officers.