They Can Stop You, But Not For Too Long

In an ideal world, there would be no traffic stops or citations. In the real world, they happen every day. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court recently tackled the issue of how long (ish) a traffic stop can last before becoming unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Writing for the majority, the infallible Justice Ruth Bader GInsburg explained in Rodriguez v. United States: a traffic stop may become unlawful “if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the [stop’s] mission.” So, what does this mean and how did this come about?

In this case, it’s particularly helpful to have a good understanding of the facts. A Nebraska man was driving down the road at midnight when his car swerved off the road and, according to the police, it appeared he was driving on the shoulder. When he was pulled over, the officer questioned him about the incident and took his documentation.

The officer asked the defendant if he would join him in the patrol vehicle, to which the defendant declined. After a negative records search on the defendant, the officer returned to the car and spoke with a separate individual in the car. He then ran yet another records check (negative again) and returned to the car with a warning ticket. After the responding officer decided the individuals seemed suspicious, he asked for consent to search the car (they declined) and then ordered them out of the vehicle. The officer then waited several minutes for back-up patrol to arrive and had his police dog conduct a search of the vehicle, eventually finding methamphetamine.

In holding that this search was unlawful, the Court added some boundaries to its previous holding in Illinois v. Caballes that police dogs were lawful during a routine traffic stop. The issue in this case was not that a police dog was used, but that the officer pulled the defendant out of the vehicle and forced him to wait for several minutes before back-up arrived and a K9 search was conducted. Essentially, a stop is valid so long as its duration does not go beyond what is needed to accomplish the stop. In layman’s terms: it’s good until it isn’t.

As the dissent points out, this rule creates a very thin line. Would the search have been legal had police back-up arrived while the officer was handing the defendant his warning? What if the defendant had just been handed the ticket and turned his keys right as a second officer pulled in front of his vehicle? The test is subjective, and It leaves great discretion to the lower courts. Interestingly enough, this case is not (at least not yet) as much of a slam dunk for the defendant as it seems. The Supreme Court punted it back to the Circuit Court for them to dig a little more deeply into this officer’s last-minute belief that the individuals were acting suspiciously. That, of course, would have given the officer probable cause to detain the gentlemen.

As a side note, reckless driving can be a misdemeanor in most states and (although rarely done) is a valid reason for an arrest. Perhaps this officer’s downfall was that he was too nice in issuing a warning ticket. Next time, maybe he’ll slap on those handcuffs and conduct a search incident to arrest or an inventory search.