Vol. 30 No. 9 U.S. Supreme Court Limits Detaining Person In Routine Traffic Stop


On April 21, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Rodriguez v. United States, that “(a)bsent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.”

The Court found that “(b)eyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission during a traffic stop typically includes checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. These checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safe­ly and responsibly. Lacking the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission.”


“Just after midnight on March 27, 2012, police officer Morgan Struble [a K-9 officer] observed a Mercury Mountaineer veer slowly onto the shoulder of Nebraska State Highway 275 for one or two seconds and then jerk back onto the road. Nebraska law prohibits driving on highway shoulders and, on that basis, Struble pulled the Mountaineer over.”  The officer approached the vehicle and “asked [the driver, Dennys Rodriguez] why he had driven onto the shoulder. Rodriguez replied that he had swerved to avoid a pothole. Struble then gathered Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance. . . .”

After running a records check, Struble went back to the car and asked for identification from the passenger, “Pollman, and called for a second officer. Struble then began writing a warning ticket for Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder of the road.”  Struble issued the written warning and by 12:27 or 12:28 a.m. Struble had finished explaining the warning to Rodriguez, and had given back to Rodriguez and Pollman the documents obtained from them. As Struble later testified, at that point, Rodriguez and Pollman “had all their documents back and a copy of the written warning. I got all the reason[s] for the stop out of the way[,] . . . took care of all the business.”  Despite that, he testified that he “did not consider Rodriguez ‘free to leave.’”

“Struble asked for permission to walk his dog around Rodriguez’s vehicle. Rodriguez said no. Struble then instructed Rodriguez to turn off the ignition, exit the vehicle, and stand in front of the patrol car to wait for the second officer. Rodriguez complied. At 12:33 a.m., a deputy sheriff arrived. Struble retrieved his dog and led him twice around the Mountaineer. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs halfway through Struble’s second pass. All told, seven or eight minutes had elapsed from the time Struble 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 arrested and indicted in federal court for possession with intent to sell.  “He moved to suppress the evidence seized from his car on the ground, among others, that Struble had prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff.”

A Magistrate Judge “found that no reasonable suspicion supported the detention once Struble issued the written warning. He concluded, however, that under Eighth Circuit precedent, extension of the stop by ‘seven to eight minutes’ for the dog sniff was only a de minimisintrusion on Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights and was therefore permissible. The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge’s factual findings and legal conclusions and denied Rodriguez’s motion to suppress.”  Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit affirmed and, in a 6 – 3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed.

Court Discussion

“In Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U. S. 405 (2005), this Court held that a dog sniff conducted during a lawful traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unreasonable seizures. This case presents the question whether the Fourth Amendment tolerates a dog sniff conducted after completion of a traffic stop?”

“We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures.  A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, ‘become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of issuing a ticket for the violation.’”

“[W]ithout additional reasonable suspicion, the officer must allow the seized person to depart once the purpose of the stop has concluded. A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation. ‘[A] relatively brief encounter,’ a routine traffic stop is ‘more analogous to a so-called ‘Terry stop’ . . . than to a formal arrest.’”

“Like a Terry stop, 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. Because addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, it may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.’”

“Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission includes ‘ordinary inquiries incident to[the traffic] stop.’ Typically such inquiries involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. These checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.”  However, noted the Court, “(a) dog sniff, by contrast, is a measure aimed at ‘detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.’”

Citing to one of its previous decisions, Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U. S. 106 (1977), the Court stated that “we reasoned that the government’s ‘legitimate and weighty’ interest in officer safety outweighs the ‘de minimis’ additional intrusion of requiring a driver, already lawfully stopped, to exit the vehicle.”  As such, “an officer may need to take certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his mission safely.  [However], On-scene investigation into other crimes . . .  detours from that mission.”

“(E)ven assuming that the imposition here was no more intrusive than the exit order in Mimms, the dog sniff could not be justified on the same basis. Highway and officer safety are interests different in kind from the Government’s endeavor to detect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular.”


The Court did not conclude that, under all circumstances, the search by a dog would be improper.  The Court noted that “(t)he critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff ‘prolongs’ – i.e.,adds time to – ‘the stop.’”

In addition, the Court states that “the Magistrate Judge found that detention for the dog sniff in this case was not independently supported by individualized suspicion, and the District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge’s findings. The Court of Appeals, however, did not review that determination.”  As such, “(t)he question whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity justified detaining Rodriguez beyond completion of the traffic infraction investigation . . . remains open for Eighth Circuit consideration . . .” and the Supreme Court remanded the case for further action.

In these types of cases, it will be the responsibility of the officer to justify delaying the stop until, for example, a K-9 can be deployed to conduct a search.  However, it must be justification based on facts which can be articulated and not just mere “hunch” or suspicion.

As with all legal issues, it is important to seek advice and guidance from your agency’s designated legal counsel.  However, as always, if you wish to discuss this case in greater detail, please feel free to contact me at (714) 446 – 1400 or via email at mjm@jones-mayer.com.

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