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"Recent Supreme Court Decision Limits Dog Sniff             Searches During Traffic Stops"

Hunter & Hein, Attorneys at Law, PLLC, 4/29/15


Our Charlotte criminal defense attorneys consider a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States to be a win for citizens and individual rights.  The decision relates to a police officer’s ability to prolong a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff search of a vehicle, and puts an end to the split of authority throughout the nation on this issue. The case, Rodriguez v. United States, centered on a routine traffic stop conducted by an officer in Nebraska. The officer observed a vehicle drift onto the shoulder of a highway, and then jerk back onto the roadway. After observing this behavior, the officer stopped the vehicle and performed his duties related to the traffic stop including: speaking with the driver and passenger of the vehicle about the violation he observed, checking the identification of both the driver and passenger, reviewing the registration and proof of insurance for the vehicle, running a warrant check on the driver and passenger, and writing and explaining the warning ticket. Once the officer had gotten, “…all the reasons for the stop out of the way[,]… [and] took care of all the business…” he then asked the driver for permission to walk his K9 around the vehicle. When the driver, Mr. Rodriquez, refused, the officer ordered him and the passenger out of the vehicle, waited for a second sheriff’s deputy to arrive and conducted the dog sniff search, locating a large amount of methamphetamine.

Mr. Rodriguez was charged with possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, in violation of 21 U.S.C § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1). Mr. Rodriguez moved to suppress the drugs seized from his vehicle on the basis of an unreasonable search of his vehicle since the officer had “prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff.” Although the motion was denied in District Court and by the Eighth Circuit Court, the Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Rodriquez, that by prolonging the traffic stop after completion of all duties related to the reason for the stop, the officer had violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly cautioned officers that a detention during a traffic stop for purposes unrelated to the reason for the stop may become unlawful if the time for the additional investigation prolongs the stop beyond what is reasonably necessary to complete the task of writing a ticket. However, it is important to note that the Court is not tying police officers’ hands in terms of carrying out their duties or ensuring their own safety. Police officers may take reasonable steps to insure their safety, including asking the driver and/or passengers to exit the vehicle. Police officers may also conduct investigation related to the traffic stop, including checking identification, insurance, and registration and questioning the occupants of the vehicle. The line is drawn where the officer’s investigation is not supported by any independent reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing which leads to further investigation of ordinary criminal acts unrelated to the reason for the traffic stop or officer safety.

In short, the Supreme Court has tightened the reign just slightly on an officer’s ability to intrude upon citizens’ privacy by putting a stop to dog sniff searches during routine traffic stops which are based on nothing more than an officer’s hunch.

Have your rights been violated?  Our criminal lawyers serve clients in Charlotte, Huntersville, Concord, and Harrisburg in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties, and are well versed on the law and procedure involved in a wide range of criminal matters.  We can help.  704-412-1442.

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