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Supreme Court: No Dogs Allowed During Traffic Stops

On Tuesday, April 21, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision in Rodriguez v. United States, limiting investigations by police officers during a traffic stop. In the ruling, Justice Ginsburg held the U.S. Constitution forbids police from holding a suspect without probable cause, for a period longer than it takes to conduct a traffic stop. In this particular case, the justices found the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure prevent police from prolonging a typical traffic stop in order to conduct additional investigations.

How Did Unreasonable Seizures Come to Light?

According to the facts, the defendant and a friend were pulling over for a traffic violation in Nebraska. The police officer issued the driver a warning. Then, the traffic cop asked the passengers for their licenses. They complied and no outstanding warrants existed. Next, the policeman asked if they would wait while he called for a K-9 unit to sniff the vehicle. The driver declined and asked to drive away. The patrolman detained the driver while waiting for the drug sniffing dog to arrive for approximately “seven to eight minutes.” When the dog sniffed the car, it smelled drugs, which permitted the police to search the car. The driver and passenger were arrested for possession of methamphetamine in violation of state law.

Supreme Court Ruling

In this case, the defendant went to trial twice. In the first case, the defendant was granted a new trial. In the second case, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction because the officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights by extending the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion of anything more than a traffic violation. “[T]he 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,” Ginsburg ruled. “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been – completed.”

Three Supreme Court Justices disagreed with the ruling, arguing that police can reasonably detain people to investigate other possible violations of the law. Justice Clarence Thomas said in his dissenting opinion that the majority’s ruling makes legal difference between “reasonable suspicion” (which doesn’t authorize the search of someone’s property) and “probably cause,” which does. So, where do you draw the line?

How Will Rodriguez Affect My Case in Louisiana?

In Louisiana, officers are granted wide authority during a traffic stop. First, officers can use their five senses to search you and your car without a warrant. For example, an officer would be permitted to search your car if they smelled drugs coming from your car or saw drug paraphernalia in your case. Alternatively, the constitution allows warrantless searches of automobiles under the exigent circumstances doctrine. In this doctrine, a search will be deemed confirmed by the court when the officer reasonably believed that the contraband had the potential of being lost without the search. When I took the bar exam, the professor joked that the Louisiana Supreme Court will protect warrantless search of anything with wheels because the officer claims there are “exigent circumstances.”

Finally, it is always possible to search a car when an occupant is being arrested. While most tickets are not arrestable offenses, some are. If the officer believes he has probable cause to place an occupant of a motor vehicle under arrest, then the officer will also be permitted to search the vehicle for “officer safety.” In many cases, officers who conduct safety checks of vehicles find evidence of other unlawful activity. When you are pulled over, remember your rights and remember to comply with an officer’s instructions. Do not do anything to raise an officer’s suspicions.

Have Your Constitutional Rights Been Violated?

Although this court was presented at the Supreme Court level, similar cases may occur frequently in the Greater New Orleans area. If you think that your Fourth Amendment rights have been violated while being pulled over during a routine traffic stop, please consider giving a criminal defense attorney a call. Crescent City Law is adamant about protecting the rights of Louisiana citizens and those who are accused of violating laws within the Louisiana state lines. When you are pulled over for a traffic violation, remember that your Fourth Amendment as a United States citizen prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause. You can call our reliable criminal defense lawyers at night, on weekends or we can visit you off-site. Please call us at (504) 264-9492 or e-mail us and we will respond as quickly as possible.

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