A Prolonged Traffic Detention for a Purpose That Goes Beyond the Original Reason for the Stop is an Illegal Prolonged Seizure

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An arrest or a seizure of your person occurs when a reasonable person in your place would feel not free to leave. In the case of a roadside stop, a brief detention is justified by the circumstances, whether those are alerting the driver that a vehicle code violation occurred and issuing a ticket, or investigating bad driving, such as weaving, that suggests possible impairment and which may, depending on the officer’s observations after he stops you, develop into an investigation for the crime of Driving Under the Influence.

The guiding principle in every case, however, is that, while the officers are empowered to stop you if there is a legal reason for such a stop and, from that point on, conduct whatever other investigation is justified by the observations they then make, a roadside investigation cannot be unduly prolonged to investigate a possible crime that is not connected to the original reason for the stop. In the recent 6-3 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of the defense in Rodriguez v. U.S., the Court reaffirmed that there are enforceable Fourth Amendment Constitutional limits when it comes to restrictions on your personal freedom. In Rodriguez, the defendant was stopped after officers observed him swerve due to a pothole in the road. He was then detained for a very long “investigation” period of 21 minutes in light of the nature of the alleged offense, after which he was given only a written warning. However, in this same period of time, a drug detection dog was called to the scene.

The officer then asked the defendant whether he would mind if the K-9 officer “ran around” his car. While the defendant declined to authorize this additional action, he was nevertheless ordered to exit the vehicle and the drug detection dog proceeded to inspect the perimeter. About eight minutes elapsed between the point at which the officer issued his written warning as to the defendant’s driving and when the K-9 officer alerted to the drugs in the vehicle. As we know from past case law, this action by a drug detection dog is not considered an additional intrusion rising to the level of a “search” – given that it is a scenario of “plain sniff” akin to “plain view” – as long as the officer who makes these additional observations is where he or she is legally entitled to be at that time.

Therefore, the defendant in Rodriguez would have had no ability to contest the further action by the drug detection dog, if the underlying detention had been legal. However, the court found that what occurred was an illegal prolonged detention. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority in Rodriguez, distinguished the 2005 case relied upon by lower courts in erroneously finding the detention to be legal. Justice Ginsburg, who dissented in the 2005 case, Illinois v. Caballes, said that decision had merely “tolerated certain unrelated investigations that did not lengthen the roadside detention.” In the newly-minted Rodriguez decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held 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.”