On April 21, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued its Opinion in Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. ____ (2015).
Justice Ginsberg delivered the majority Opinion. At issue was whether a police officer could “extend” a traffic stop in order to conduct a canine sniff for narcotics.
In Rodriguez, the defendant was stopped for a traffic violation. After issuing the citation and checking Rodriguez’ license the officer asked for permission to conduct a canine sniff. Rodriguez demurred and was detained for seven to eight minutes until a canine unit arrived. The canine alerted to contraband and Rodriguez was federally indicted for methamphetamine. In denying defendant’s Motion to Suppress, the District Court held that the Fourth Amendment intrusion was “de minimis” as it was limited to a few minutes.
Rodriguez appealed arguing that the continued detention was illegal absent an independent showing of reasonable suspicion pursuant to Terry v. Ohio, the landmark Supreme Court decision that defined citizen police interactions as either mere encounters, investigatory detention or custodial arrest.
Relative to the latter two, the Supreme Court established the need for a showing reasonable suspicion and probable cause, respectively.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that law enforcement does have a legitimate interest in keeping public roadways safe. It analogized the routine traffic stop to a Terry stop requiring only a showing of reasonable suspicion. An investigating police officer may detain the driver for a period of time sufficient to determine whether or not a violation occurred and to issue a citation. It also recognized Illinois v. Caballes which held that a canine sniff during a lawful traffic stop was permitted.
But existing precedent was silent on the issue of whether a separate and distinct showing of reasonable suspicion was required to continue the detention in order to facilitate the canine sniff.
The Court drew a distinction between the “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop . . . . (such as) checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance” and a canine sniff “aimed at “detecting evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.” It noted that even the Government conceded characterization.
The Court held that prolonging a routine traffic stop beyond the ordinary purposes therefore in order to facilitate a canine sniff, even if limited in duration to a few minutes, required an independent showing of reasonable suspicion.
The Supreme Court’s holding is consistent with Pennsylvania appellate law. In Commonwealth v. Reppert the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that once the basis for a traffic stop was concluded a police officer must demonstrate reasonable suspicion to continue the detention.
Police, of course, are under no obligation, legal, moral or otherwise to advise a driver of these finer points of search and seizure jurisprudence. An educated and informed citizenry may not be the most convenient for law enforcement, but the Framers of the Constitution knew from bitter experience that a person must be free from unwarranted search and seizure and enshrined that right in the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.