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Drug Dog Search Prolonged Traffic Stop, Says SCOTUS

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on April 22, 2015 11:54 AM

Using a drug-sniffing dog in a completed traffic stop, in the absence of any reasonable suspicion to do so, is unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a 6-3 opinion.

Officer Morgan Struble pulled Dennys Rodriguez over for veering onto the shoulder, then jerking back onto the road. Rodriguez had a valid driver's license and no criminal history. After writing Rodriguez a warning ticket, Struble asked for permission to walk his dog around Rodriguez's car. It wasn't actually a question, as Struble did so even after Rodriguez said no. After two passes around the car, the dog alerted to drugs, and indeed, a search of the car revealed methamphetamine.

No Reasonable Suspicion? No Drug-Sniffing Dog

Not cool, said Justice Ginsburg, writing for the six-justice majority. The duration of a traffic stop can't be unreasonably extended, and in this case, bringing in a drug-sniffing dog to a completed traffic stop, even though there was no reason to ("Officer Struble had [no]thing other than a rather large hunch," the magistrate judge said) made the stop longer than it had to be.

A simple rule, but the real meat of this opinion is the interplay between the majority opinion and the dissents written by Justices Thomas and Alito.

Their main point of contention was over "reasonableness." Ginsburg said that bringing in the drug dog had nothing to do with "the ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop" like checking the validity of a license. Absent some kind of reasonable suspicion, she said, "[a] dog sniff, by contrast, is a measure aimed at 'detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.'" The drug dog sniff was unreasonable because the traffic stop was over and there was no reason to keep the driver, other than "a general interest in criminal enforcement," which isn't enough to prolong the stop.

Thomas and Alito Push Back

Thomas, on the other hand, criticized the majority for "draw[ing] an artificial line between dog sniffs and other common police practices." Bringing in the drug dog was no more unrelated to the instant traffic stop than searching records for "ordinary criminal wrongdoing," he said. Even though warrant checks are more like the latter, they're a categorically acceptable practice even though the majority ruled that, for some reason, drug dogs are not.

Thomas also went a step further, suggesting that Struble had reasonable suspicion to continue to the detention -- something with which Kennedy didn't agree (and which contradicts the magistrate's finding). Thomas also had an alternative recitation of the facts, which included the heavy smell of air freshener, the occupants of the car avoiding eye contact, and Rodriguez offering a story about why he was driving on a lonely state highway at midnight that Struble didn't buy.

Alito called the majority's opinion "an unnecessary, impractical, and arbitrary decision." Alito said that the majority's decision focused too much on the order in which Struble conducted the stop (though Ginsburg called that a mischaracterization). Struble already had the drug dog in the car; the stop continued for a few more minutes because he called for backup, just in case. This, to Alito, was imminently reasonable (though it still ignores the fact that, at its inception, Struble's decision to use the drug dog lacked an independent basis).

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