New Limits Placed on K-9 Searches by U.S. Supreme Court

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Last April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote that police could not prolong a traffic stop in order for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive. The case, Rodriguez v. the United States, 13-9972, arose out of a traffic stop in Nebraska where the driver, Dennys Rodriguez, was pulled over and given a written warning for an offense. Seems normal so far, but the Supreme Court justices had issue with the fact that the officer detained Rodriguez for several minutes after he refused to allow a drug dog to walk around his car and until another officer could arrive. Once that other police officer arrived, the dog came out and drugs were found. Rodriguez was later indicted on federal drug counts.

And in a twist that reverses a similar 2005 case of Illinois, the justices held 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.”Back in 2005, the Court held that such searches didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches (See Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. (2005). Then in a 6-2 vote (William Rehnquist abstained), The case was initially upheld in the Illinois Appellate Court but then the state’s Supreme Court reversed, setting the stage for the 2005 showdown in the nation’s highest court. There, the justices held it wasn’t unreasonable to have a drug sniffing dog walk around the car and thus, no Constitutional rights were violated. The issue in that case was privacy. Drugs were, by definition, illegal so a person could expect no amount of privacy and thus protection.

So what changed? In both cases, the driver was issued either a warning or a citation.

In the Rodriguez case, it seems the justices focused on the time having a drug dog walk around a car, not the fact that a person got a ticket as what made the search illegal. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote for the majority:

“An officer, in other words, may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop . . . but he may not do so in such a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual,” she wrote.

Drug sniffing dogs are not inherent to traffic stops, which largely are done in the name of safety. The decision sends the case back to the lower courts to find out if there was reasonable suspicion to merit the search and which would justify the prolonged seizure that accompanied it.

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas and others argued the decision is wrong, saying it depends upon how fast an officer can move through a stop and at what point in the process a ticket is issued.

Here in central Illinois, this is a good decision for residents especially those who attend the Summer Camp music festival which often yields many traffic stops and searches. It’s another plate back into the armor of those who are looking to protect the rights of people. Here at the Miller Law Offices, we keep up on the latest in major decisions that could affect you and your loved one. And that provides you with the best possible legal strategy.