Yesterday’s Supreme Court Dog Case Shows Justices “Get It” When It Comes to Personal Freedoms

The United States Supreme Court yesterday issued another “dog case”, an opinion discussing whether and when the police can use a K-9 to sniff for drugs or contraband prior to getting authorization to do so from a judge.  We have previously posted about these issues.  Yesterday’s case concerned the question as to how long the police can detain a motorist who has done nothing other than commit a minor traffic violation, in order to keep the driver at the side of the road while the cops bring out the pooch to sniff for dope.  The answer? Twenty-two minutes is too long, and evidence obtained as a result of an “alert” by the dog must be suppressed unless the cops otherwise had reasonable suspicion to continue detaining the motorist.  The case is Rodriguez v. United States, and can be read here.

This is just the latest in a series of cases in which the majority of the Supreme Court have reinvigorated the need to protect personal freedom from unwarranted police intrusion.  These cases have renewed the recognition that courts need to protect against “unreasonable searches and seizures.”   As is now well-known, the Supreme Court held last year that the police now need a warrant in order to inspect the cellphone of an arrested person.  Two years ago the court held that police need a warrant before they can let a drug-sniffing dog wander around the outside of a person’s home.  A few years ago, they also issued a unanimous decision that mandated a warrant from a Judge before the police can install a GPS tracker on a person’s automobile.

Yesterday’s case tightens up the rules that the cops need to follow when using drug-sniffing dogs during a traffic stop.  In essence, the Supreme Court held that such procedures become unlawful if the cop holds the driver at the side of the road solely to conduct the search. “We hold 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,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. “A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. While the court has allowed police to take certain actions in a traffic stop that go beyond its narrow purpose, such as requiring motorists to exit their vehicles, those have been closely tied to officer safety or other practical needs, she said.

The case was something we see a lot in our practice.  An officer stopped the driver for straying out of his lane.  It took the officer 22 minutes to perform the license check and other normal actions associated with such a stop.  The cop then gave a warning to the driver, and asked for permission to search.  The driver, wisely, declined, so the officer proceeded to let his dog sniff around, and when the dog “alerted” the officer searched and found a bad of drugs.  The Federal Magistrate Judge agreed that the officer merely had a “large lunch” as the reason he wanted to search this particular car, but the lower courts said the search was nevertheless OK.  Yesterday’s case sent the matter back to the lower courts to determine if anything else would have justified keeping the motorist at roadside, and if not, the Defendant will likely win the case.

A couple of years ago, I was talking in private with a friend who is also a judge.  I predicted that issues concerning personal liberty will change because the relatively elderly Justices on the Supreme Court were becoming more attuned to modern technology, and could see first-hand how the handy device they keep in their pockets or purses could be used to investigate anyone.  Justices also are not blind in that they see the wholesale stopping of people on roadsides, at airports and other locations so that law enforcement can search the person in some way or another.  I told my friend that when the Justices begin to see how such law enforcement tactics can affect them personally, the trajectory of Supreme Court rulings likely would change.  I am not a savant, by any means, but it appears that my prediction is coming closer to being accurate.