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SCOTUS: Police cannot prolong a completed traffic stop to conduct dog sniff absent reasonable suspicion

Rodriguez v. United States, USSC No. 13-9972, 2015 WL 1780927 (April 21, 2015), reversing United States v. Rodriguez, 741 F.3d 905 (8th Cir. 2014); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

Some lower courts have held that police may briefly prolong a completed traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff. The Supreme Court rejects that approach, and holds that a seizure justified only by a traffic violation “‘become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission’ of issuing a ticket for the violation.” (Slip op. at 1, quoting Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407 (2005)). Thus, prolonging a traffic stop requires reasonable suspicion of criminal activity beyond the traffic infraction.

After stopping Rodriguez for a routine traffic violation, the officer called for back-up, issued Rodriquez a written warning, and asked Rodriquez for consent to walk his drug detection dog around the car. When Rodriquez refused to consent he was ordered out of the car, where he stood for the seven to eight minutes it took the second officer to arrive. The police then deployed the dog, which alerted and led to the discovery of methamphetamine. (Slip op. at 1-3).

Rodriguez argued the traffic stop was unlawfully prolonged without reasonable suspicion, but the lower court rejected his claim. Eighth Circuit precedent held that “[a] brief delay to employ a dog does not unreasonably prolong the stop,” and the seven- or eight-minute delay in this case resembled delays that prior cases had found to be permissible. 741 F.3d at 907. The Court holds the Eighth Circuit’s rule is unsupportable.

Because a routine traffic stop is more like a Terry stop than a formal arrest, Knowles v. Iowa, 525 U.S. 113, 117 (1998), Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323, 330 (2009), “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, Caballes, 543 U.S., at 407, and attend to related safety concerns….” (Slip op. at 5). Addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, so the stop may last no longer than is necessary to effectuate that purpose. Thus, authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed. (Slip op. at 5).

Our decisions in Caballes and Johnson heed these constraints. In both cases, we concluded that the Fourth Amendment tolerated certain unrelated investigations that did not lengthen the roadside detention. Johnson, 555 U.S., at 327–328 (questioning); Caballes, 543 U.S., at 406, 408 (dog sniff). In Caballes, however, we cautioned that a traffic stop “can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of issuing a warning ticket. 543 U.S., at 407. And we repeated that admonition in Johnson: The seizure remains lawful only “so long as [unrelated] inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop.” 555 U.S., at 333. …. An officer, in other words, may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop. But … he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual. ….

Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission includes “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop.” Caballes, 543 U.S., at 408. 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. ….

A dog sniff, by contrast, is a measure aimed at “detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.” Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32, 40–41 (2000). …. Candidly, the Government acknowledged at oral argument that a dog sniff, unlike the routine measures just mentioned, is not an ordinary incident of a traffic stop. …. 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.

(Slip op. at 5-7).

The question remains whether the officer had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that justified detaining Rodriguez beyond completion of the traffic infraction investigation. The court of appeals found it unnecessary to address this issue, so the case is remanded for it to decide that question. (Slip op. at 9).

This decision invalidates Seventh Circuit precedent adopting a de minimis rule similar to the one adopted by the Eight Circuit. See United States v. Carpenter, 406 F.3d 915 (7th Cir. 2005) (five-minute delay was a “modest incremental” one and not unreasonable). Wisconsin case law had already reached the conclusion adopted by the Court. As noted in our post on the cert grant, Rodriguez’s case is like State v. House, 2013 WI App 111, 350 Wis. 2d 478, 837 N.W.2d 645, where the police conducted a dog sniff after issuing House a warning and returning House’s driver’s license—i.e., after completing the traffic stop—and without bothering to ask for House’s consent. Distinguishing State v. Arias, 2008 WI 84, ¶32, 311 Wis. 2d 358, 752 N.W.2d 748, where a drug dog sniff occurred during an ongoing traffic stop, and relying on State v. Williams, 2002 WI 94, 255 Wis. 2d 1, 646 N.W.2d 834, and State v. Jones, 2005 WI App 26, 278 Wis. 2d 774, 693 N.W.2d 104, House held that issuing the warning and returning the license ended the initial stop and, because the purpose of the stop had been resolved, the reasons justifying the initial stop ceased to exist and the continued detention of House to conduct the dog sniff was not reasonably related in scope to the circumstances justifying the stop. 350 Wis. 2d 478, ¶¶6-10. (NB: See CLARIFICATION (4/22/15) below.)

Rodriguez doesn’t directly affect so-called “Badger” stops, where the police obtain a driver’s “consent” to search a car (using a drug dog or otherwise) by taking advantage of the fact that motorists think they are obliged to answer questions and can’t leave the scene, even though as a matter of law the motorist is free to go because the basis for the initial stop has been resolved. Williams, 255 Wis. 2d 1, ¶43 (Abrahamson, J., dissenting). If the consent is valid, then the search is valid, too. But the validity of the consent will depend on a fact-specific inquiry into whether a reasonable person would have felt that the stop was concluded—and, therefore, that he or she was free to leave—once the officer issued the warning or ticket or “all clear.” If a reasonable person didn’t think the stop was concluded, the consent is the product of an illegal detention and, therefore, invalid.

Note that Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito dissent. They would hold there was no violation of the basic reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment. (Thomas dissent at 4-5). They also criticize the majority for limiting the duration of the stop to the time necessary to complete “traffic based inquires” and thereby eliding the difference between a traffic stop based on reasonable suspicion versus one based on probable cause. The difference matters because probable cause may allow for a custodial arrest and, therefore, justify a longer detention. (Thomas dissent at 5-10). Justices Thomas and Alito would also conclude that there was reasonable suspicion to detain Rodriguez after the completion of the traffic stop, even though the court of appeals didn’t decide the issue. (Thomas dissent at 10-12; Alito dissent at 1).

For more analysis of the decision, we recommend the always thoughtful analyses of Orin Kerr and Rory Little.

CLARIFICATION (4/22/15): An astute reader has pointed out some nuances about the majority’s decision in Arias that we think justify some clarification of what we wrote above.

First, the Arias majority did characterize the traffic stop in that case as “on-going,” 311 Wis. 2d 358, ¶¶39, 43-44; but the circuit court apparently thought otherwise, as it made factual findings about how the dog sniff (and resulting investigation) “extended” or “prolonged” the stop. 311 Wis. 2d 358, ¶¶26-28; see also id., ¶¶55-62 (Bradley, J., dissenting). There is, after all, no reason to talk about “extending” or “prolonging” the stop unless the original “mission” of the stop was, or reasonably should have been, completed.

Second, regardless of whether the Arias majority disregarded (or revised) the circuit court’s factual findings, its characterization of the stop as “on-going” was part of the basis for its decision. It wasn’t the only basis, however; indeed, it wasn’t even the primary basis (as House might seem to suggest, 350 Wis. 2d 478, ¶6). Instead, the Arias majority did a general “reasonableness” analysis, balancing the intrusion on the defendant’s liberty against the public interest, 311 Wis. 2d 358, ¶¶38-39. In conducting that analysis the majority concluded the dog sniff was an “incremental intrusion,” id. at ¶¶40, 44, 46, 47, 48, and it found this “incremental intrusion” to be reasonable given the important public interest involved (stanching the flow of illegal drugs, etc., etc.).

Sound familiar? Of course it does: It is nothing less than the de minimis approach that Rodriguez just soundly rejected. Thus, Rodriguez effectively guts the primary rationale for Arias’s holding that the extension of the stop in that case was reasonable. And for good measure, we note that Rodriguez also nullifies the Arias majority’s reading of Caballes, 311 Wis. 2d 358, ¶42, and means the Arias majority is wrong when it says that “dicta” in State v. Betow, 226 Wis. 2d 90, 94, 593 N.W.2d 499 (Ct. App. 1999), “misstates” the applicable law, 311 Wis. 2d 358, ¶45. Cf. Arias, 311 Wis. 2d 358, ¶¶69-82 (Bradley, J., dissenting) (anticipating in many essential respects the analysis adopted by Rodriquez).

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