Believe it or not, in this golden age of surveillance, U.S. citizens may have just gotten back a speck of their right to privacy. SCOTUS ruled Tuesday in Rodriguez v. United States that cops can’t detain you any longer for a traffic stop in order to have drug dogs give you the old “sniff sniff” than it would naturally take to complete a full traffic stop for whatever offense the officer may be pulling you over for.
If the cops can’t get a drug dog to your vehicle and have it alert to illegal substances of some kind in the time it would normally take to issue you a ticket, warn you, or just let you go for whatever alleged offense, tough bear claw – it’s unconstitutional.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it this way:
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.
Ginsburg further clarified that officers’ constitutional authority for detaining a vehicle “ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been – completed.”
Meaning you suddenly have a lot more right to privacy in your vehicle. There’s now less pressure for motorists to consent to searches they’d rather not have to deal with.
But is that true? Not so fast, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. says.
Alito believes officers will simply find ways to essentially carry out their will without breaking the new protocol. Perhaps they’d find workarounds like having a dog sniff your car while another officer conducts other matters pertaining to the traffic stop. The problem there, however, is that officers would need to have a police dog on hand at any given time, which is unlikely. That, or the dog would need to be quite close, which would largely be a matter of chance.
Alito wrote in a statement:
Most officers will learn the prescribed sequence of events even if they cannot fathom the reason for that requirement. (I would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall when police instructors teach this rule to officers who make traffic stops.)
Regardless, the court decided 6 – 3 in the matter. Ginsburg was joined in her decision by Chief Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen G. Breyer, John G. Roberts Jr., Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Let’s give them a round of applause, shall we? You can gather up your old produce for Alito and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
The case now benefiting Americans’ right to privacy across the entire nation began back in 2012, in Nebraska. Officer Morgan Struble claims to have seen a Mercury Mountaineer “veer” onto the highway’s shoulder, then suddenly “jerk” back on course, which naturally drew his attention. Accompanied by his four-legged partner, Floyd, Struble stopped and interviewed two men in the vehicle – Dennys Rodriguez (driving) and passenger Scott Pollman. He went through all the normal motions of checking records on the two men, ultimately leaving them with a warning, but something didn’t sit right with him about the Mountaineer, so he asked to search the car.
Officer Struble then ordered Rodriquez from the vehicle and had Floyd sniff the car once another officer arrived on the scene. After circling the SUV two times, Floyd allegedly signaled that drugs were present.
Ginsburg wrote in her statement:
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] large bag of methamphetamine.
What was eating at Ginsburg, see, was that SCOTUS had passed a law she was not happy with back in 2005, which The Washington Post reports, “said that a dog sniff conducted during a lawful traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment.” Ginsburg dissented in that case, but still remembered that old bit in the questionable law that threw Americans’ right to privacy a sickly bone – “that the dog sniff could not prolong the traffic stop.”
Justice Thomas remains skeptical, though. Like Alito, he believes nothing much will change with the decision. Thomas wrote:
Under its reasoning, a traffic stop made by a rookie could be executed in a reasonable manner, whereas the same traffic stop made by a knowledgeable, veteran officer in precisely the same circumstances might not, if in fact his knowledge and experience made him capable of completing the stop faster.
Perhaps Thomas does not recall Ginsburg’s “or reasonably should have been” language.
Meanwhile, as the Supreme Court tosses the football around and argues over relevance, Rodriguez will be busting rocks for the next five years most likely. The justices have kicked his case back down to the lower courts where it will need to be determined whether or not Struble had legitimate probable cause to bust out Floyd and conduct a search.
That question has yet to be formally decided.