Supreme Court: Cops can’t hold suspects to wait for drug-sniffing dog

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Tuesday that the Constitution forbids police from holding a suspect without probable cause, even for fewer than 10 extra minutes.

Writing on behalf of the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg declared that the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure prevent police from extending an otherwise completed traffic stop to allow for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive.

“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,” she ruled.

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The case, Rodriguez v. United States, was brought by a man who was pulled over for driving on the shoulder of a Nebraska highway. After the police pulled him over, checked his license and issued a warning for his erratic driving, the officer asked whether he could walk his drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle.

The driver, Dennys Rodriguez, refused. However, the officer nonetheless detained him for “seven or eight minutes” until a backup officer arrived. Then, the original officer retrieved his dog.

After sniffing around the car, the dog detected drugs, and Rodriguez was indicted for possessing methamphetamine. In all, the stop lasted less than 30 minutes.

According to the Supreme Court, though, that search of Rodriguez’s car was illegal, and the evidence gathered in it should not be used at trial. While officers may use a dog to sniff around a car during the course of a routine traffic stop, they cannot extend the length of the stop in order to carry it out.

“[T]he 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,” Ginsburg ruled. “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy disagreed with the ruling, arguing that police can reasonably detain people to investigate other possible violations of the law.

In his dissenting opinion, Thomas said that majority’s ruling makes “meaningless" the legal difference between “reasonable suspicion” — which does not authorize a search of someone’s property — and “probable cause," which does.

“Had Officer Struble arrested, handcuffed, and taken Rodriguez to the police station for his traffic violation, he would have complied with the Fourth Amendment,” he wrote, using the majority’s argument.

“But because he made Rodriguez wait for seven or eight extra minutes until a dog arrived, he evidently committed a constitutional violation. Such a view of the Fourth Amendment makes little sense.”

This story was updated at 1:48 p.m.