Each year certain legal rulings of the United States Supreme Court escape widespread public scrutiny and debate. The release of these legal opinions on many varied issues of the highest importance to the American justice system are often done at one time. As a result, more publicized reporting upon politically charged legal decisions that the supreme court may have decided often overshadow the potential significance of other rulings that may more greatly affect the long term rights of the general public.
One such recent supreme court ruling that I find particularly compelling, especially in my role focused upon assessing the validity of dui related traffic detentions, is that found within Rodriguez V. United States. The case focused upon the legal validity of a drug related prosecution initiated as a result of a prolonged traffic stop.
Denny Rodriguez was pulled over to the side of a state highway in Nebraska following the patrolman’s assertions that Mr. Rodriguez had driven for a time into the shoulder area of the highway. In my opinion, no doubt motivated to procure a potential dui arrest, the Nebraska officer stopped Mr. Rodriguez for questioning.
As most of us have experienced, the officer ran a background check of Mr. Rodriguez and came up empty as to any potential warrants or other legal basis upon which to detain him. With neither the legal probable cause to proceed with an impaired driving investigation or any other potential criminal violation, the officer initially resigned himself to give Mr. Rodriguez a written warning to drive within his prescribed driving lane.
Another example of a reasonable officer using discretion you say. After all traffic ticket fines for any violations are increasingly expensive and can lead to much higher insurance costs for drivers. Seems that giving a warning in such a situation is quite a decent course of action.
Unfortunately, as I have learned on far too many occasions, this officer’s apparent initial act of benevolence would later be overshadowed by a dogged determination to make an arrest.
Following the officer’s delivery of a written warning to Mr. Rodriguez it appears that a time period of eight minutes passed when Rodriguez’s vehicle remained at the scene of the stop. Rodriguez felt compelled to remain at the scene because the officer in question happened to have a drug detecting dog within his patrol car. As such, the officer felt it prudent to delay Rodriguez’s detention just a wee bit longer as he had his trusted canine take a lap around the targeted vehicle in search of drugs that the patrolmen had not been able to legally uncover before.
Lo and behold the doggy detective was able to uncover a bag of Methamphetamine within Rodriguez’s automobile leading to this initial traffic warning recipient’s arrest.
While the dog’s terrific investigative work in this case is to be commended, the officer’s actions could not. You see there is such a concept in this country called unreasonable search and seizure. What is determined to be legally “unreasonable” is often in the eyes of the judicial beholder.
The legal validity of this particular search initiated by the officer’s trusted friend, “Floyd,” turned upon the length of the roadside detention following the officer’s delivery of his written warning to Rodriguez.
Rising up the appellate court ladder, lawyers endorsing the police action in this case would properly cite a Supreme Court ruling approximately ten years ago. The landmark case affirmed and validated the police use of drug sniffing canines during the course of traffic detentions. In fact, the case specifically stated that “brief prolongations” of these traffic stops that gave the opportunity for such dogs to arrive at the scene were not a violation of the fourth amendment’s preclusion against unreasonable search and seizure.
The United States Appellate Court (the highest judicial authority under that of the United States Supreme Court) agreed with police lawyers. The appellate court’s ruling was not prepared to disallow the actions undertaken by this Nebraska police officer in contravention of the above referenced precedent cited by the lawyers endorsing this officers’s actions.
However, now accepted for a hearing by the US Supreme Court (the Supreme Court does not have to agree to hear a case that will overrule the decision of the appellate court) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took center stage in clarifying the meaning of its former dog sniffing ruling in invalidating the actions of the officer undertaken within the Rodriguez case.
Justice Ginsburg, a justice who had dissented with the majority in the previously issued ruling allowing for the use of drug sniffing dogs during traffic stops, used the Rodriguez ruling to help clarify how these stops could not be conducted in a way that runs afoul of the fourth amendment prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures.
Ginsburg speaking for the majority ruling in this most recent case stated that prolonged traffic stops contemplated within its former decision had only “tolerated certain unrelated investigations that did not lengthen roadside detention.”
As a result without probable cause to otherwise detain a vehicle and/or occupant, a police officer may not use delay as a tactic to prolong the length of a traffic stop as a pretext to search for criminal activity. Where the ruling remains somewhat murky in my view is the allowance for “certain unrelated checks” “during” an otherwise lawful traffic stop.
Although the majority’s ruling is a refreshing affirmation of fourth amendment principals, the judicial dissenters, including Justice Samuel Alito, raise the issue of the inevitable real world procedural manipulation of the ruling to justify continued prolonged traffic stops that comport with the court’s most recent ruling.
For example, Alito states that procedurally, police will be trained to give warnings as the last step in the detention chain so as to proclaim that their drug sniffing dog did not otherwise prolong the traffic stop but was undertaken in conjunction with the stop.
Justice Clarence Thomas points out that the ruling of the majority could reward less efficient officers who will be rewarded for their inefficiency with more time within which to uncover criminal activity and/or have drug canines arrive at a roadside stop.
Time will tell as to whether the dissenting views of Justices such as Alito and Thomas prove justified. However, at the very least, the recent Rodriguez decision in my view has provided a foundation upon which to affirm legal principals that defense lawyers may utilize in restraining traffic cops determined to manipulate roadside traffic stops that otherwise lengthen the detention of productive people every day.