Rodriguez v. United States

Issues 

Does an officer’s continued detention of a driver, even after completion of the traffic stop, to conduct a canine sniff violate the Fourth Amendment when the officer lacks reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or some other legal justification to support the additional investigation?

Oral argument: 
January 21, 2015

The Supreme Court will determine whether an officer may extend a traffic stop, even after the stop has been completed, to conduct a canine sniff without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or some other legal justification. Dennys Rodriguez claims that any extension of a completed stop to conduct further investigation, no matter how brief, violates the Fourth Amendment unless the extension is independently justified by reasonable suspicion. The United States counters that officers may lawfully engage in further investigations during a traffic stop so long as the officer does not unreasonably prolong the stop. The Supreme Court’s decision might curb law enforcement’s investigative powers with respect to routine traffic stops by potentially creating bright-line restrictions on those powers. 

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

This Court has held that, during an otherwise lawful traffic stop, asking a driver to exit a vehicle, conducting a drug sniff with a trained canine, or asking a few off-topic questions are “de minimis” intrusions on personal liberty that do not require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to comport with the Fourth Amendment. This case poses the question of whether the same rule applies after the conclusion of the traffic stop, so that an officer may extend the already-completed stop for a canine sniff without reasonable suspicion or other lawful justification.

Facts 

On the night of March 27, 2012, police officer Morgan Struble saw a vehicle briefly drive onto the shoulder of a Nebraska highway in violation of Nebraska law. See United States v. Rodriguez, 741 F.3d 905, 906 (8th Cir. 2014); Brief for Respondent, the United States at 2. Struble stopped the vehicle at 12:06 A.M. Rodriguez, 741 F.3d at 906. Struble then asked the driver, Dennys Rodriguez, for his license, registration, and proof of insurance and asked Rodriguez if he would accompany him to the patrol car. See id. After asking Struble whether he was required to do so, Rodriguez decided to remain in the vehicle. See id. After completing a records check on Rodriguez, Struble returned to Rodriguez’s vehicle and asked Rodriguez’s passenger, Scott Pollman, where Pollman and Rodriguez were coming from. See id. at 907. Pollman replied that they were returning to Norfolk, Nebraska, from a trip to Omaha, Nebraska, where they had looked at a car that was for sale. See id. Struble then completed a records check on Pollman and called for backup. See id. At 12:27 A.M. or 12:28 A.M., Struble issued a written warning and asked Rodriguez for permission to walk Struble’s police dog—which was sitting in Struble’s patrol car—around the vehicle. See id. Rodriguez refused. See id. Struble then instructed Rodriguez to exit the vehicle and wait in front of the patrol car until a deputy sheriff arrived. See id. Upon the sheriff’s arrival at 12:33 A.M., Struble and his trained canine walked the perimeter of Rodriguez’s car. See id. During the second trip around the car—seven or eight minutes after Struble had issued the written warning—the dog alerted Struble that drugs were present and the officers searched the vehicle. See id. The officers found a large bag of methamphetamine in the vehicle and charged Rodriguez with possessing with the intent to distribute methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1). See id.; Brief for Petitioner at 6.

Rodriguez filed a motion in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska (“district court”) to suppress the evidence that Struble seized from Rodriguez’s car on grounds that the dog sniff violated his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures and that the duration of the traffic stop was unlawful. See United States v. Rodriguez, No. 8:12CR170, 2012 WL 5458427, at *2 (D. Neb. Aug. 30, 2012). The district court denied the motion. See id. Rodriguez subsequently appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (“Eighth Circuit”), arguing that his motion should have been granted because the dog sniff unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop, given that the police officers lacked reasonable suspicion to extend the stop. Rodriguez, 741 F.3d at 907.

The Eighth Circuit held that the dog sniff did not unreasonably prolong the traffic stop, regardless of whether Struble had reasonable suspicion to continue to detain Rodriguez. See Rodriguez, 741 F.3d at 907–08. The court reasoned that the dog sniff in this case was a de minimis delay, holding that a seven- or eight-minute delay is reasonable. See id. at 907.

On October 2, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to consider whether a police officer may extend a lawful, completed traffic stop to conduct a canine sniff in the absence of reasonable suspicion. See Brief for Petitioner at i, 1.

Analysis 

The Fourth Amendment states that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated . . . .” U.S. Const. Amend. IV; see also Brief for Petitioner at 1. In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether, absent reasonable suspicion, an officer’s prolonged detention of a vehicle and its occupants to complete a dog sniff violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizures. See Brief for Petitioner at i.   

Rodriguez argues that absent reasonable suspicion, an officer’s extension of a traffic stop violates the Fourth Amendment. See Brief for Petitioner at 12–14. The United States counters that a canine sniff does not unreasonably prolong a traffic stop, and thus, does not violate the Fourth Amendment. See Brief for Respondent at 19–20.

DOES THE CONTINUED DETENTION OF A MOTORIST POST TRAFFIC STOP VIOLATE THE FOURTH AMENDMENT? 

Fourth Amendment Searches and Seizures 

Rodriguez argues that subsequent to a completed traffic stop, an officer’s continued detention of a vehicle’s occupants absent individualized reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizures. See Brief for Petitioner at 12–13. Rodriguez asserts that according to the Court’s decision in Illinois v. Caballes, an officer’s authority to detain vehicle occupants ends when the purpose of the traffic stop has been fulfilled. See id. At that point, Rodriguez claims, an officer may not extend the stop, no matter how briefly, absent individualized reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. See id. Rodriguez contends that without individualized suspicion, a dog sniff investigation is more intrusive than a routine traffic stop because it lacks the “regularized” manner of a traffic stop. See id. at 14. Rodriguez further claims that a drug investigation conducted during an extended traffic stop conflicts with a motorist’s reasonable expectation in the motorist’s ability to leave once an officer has issued a traffic ticket. See id. 

The United States counters that an officer may reasonably detain vehicle occupants following a completed traffic stop. See Brief for Respondent at 11. The United States argues that in accordance with Caballes, as long as the stop is reasonably prolonged, an officer may conduct a wide range of investigative inquiries, including tasks that resolve the traffic infraction and tasks intended to identify other criminal wrongdoing. See id. at 12. The United States further claims that Caballes supports the position that after a lawful traffic stop, an officer may perform investigative tasks unrelated to the initial reason for the stop without violating motorists’ Fourth Amendment protected privacy interests. See id. at 17–18. The United States contends that in Caballes, the Supreme Court decided that a dog sniff falls within the scope of a routine traffic stop, and because dog sniffs do not violate privacy interests, a mere shifting purpose in a lawful traffic stop does not automatically make the stop unreasonable. See id. at 18.

Reasonable Extension

Rodriguez asserts that the Eighth Circuit’s application of the de minimis exception relies on flawed interpretations of the Supreme Court’s precedent on the Fourth Amendment. See Brief for Petitioner at 16. Rodriguez argues that the Eighth Circuit incorrectly held that reasonableness under the “totality of the circumstances” standard permits a dog sniff and that a bright line marking the end of a traffic stop is an artificial construction. See id. at 17. However, Rodriguez claims that traffic stop limits are a result of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, which allows officers to stop a motorist for a specific purpose, as long as the stop does not last longer than required to fulfill that purpose. See id. Rodriguez also contends that the Eighth Circuit’s application of the de minimis exception from Pennsylvania v. Mimms, which allows officers to order drivers out of the vehicle, is inapplicable to this case. See id. at 24; Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111 (1977). Rodriguez explains that Mimm’s de minimis exception promotes officer safety, which is different from the purpose of dog sniffs. See id. at 24; Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111 (1977). Moreover, Rodriguez claims that in Caballes, the Court distinguished between the validity of a dog sniff conducted during a traffic stop and a dog sniff conducted during an extension of a traffic stop. See id. at 29. Rodriguez argues that a dog sniff conducted during a legitimate traffic violation does not infringe upon privacy interests, whereas a dog sniff that occurs during an unlawfully continued detention does. See id.

The United States rejects Rodriguez’s interpretation of Caballes, claiming instead that Caballes allows officers to extend a traffic stop if the dog sniff does not unreasonably prolong the stop. See Brief for Respondent at 19. The United States maintains that according to Caballes, extending a stop even momentarily does not automatically make the stop per se unreasonable; rather, extending a stop to conduct a dog sniff is permissible if the stop does not exceed the duration “reasonably required” to resolve the traffic infraction. See id. at 19–20. The United States cites United States v. Sharpe to highlight that the test for whether a traffic stop violates the Fourth Amendment requires an overall objective reasonableness assessment under the given circumstances. See id. at 20. The United States further argues that the reasonableness analysis applies no matter the sequence in which the officer performs traffic-stop tasks. See id. at 30. The United States asserts that an officer’s decision to conduct a dog sniff during a traffic stop—either before or after the officer issues a ticket—has no impact on the intrusiveness of the traffic stop. See id. 

DOES A REASONABLE SUSPICION OF CRIMINAL ACTIVITY JUSTIFY EXTENDING AN ALREADY-COMPLETED TRAFFIC STOP?

Rodriguez contends that weak facts based merely on an officer’s “big hunch” do not constitute a reasonable suspicion that can independently justify continued detention. See Brief for Petitioner at 32. Rodriguez argues that the reasonable-suspicion test requires that an extension adhere to a “particularized and objective basis for suspecting . . . criminal activity.” See id. at 34 (quoting United States v. Cortez, 449 U.S. 411, 417–18 (1981)). Rodriguez maintains that the officer’s four reasons for suspecting Rodriguez’s involvement with criminal activity fail to justify continued detention. See id. First, Rodriguez emphasizes that the mere presence of a strong air freshener smell does not establish reasonable suspicion of the presence of narcotics because drivers use air fresheners for masking everyday smells. See id. at 34–35. Second, Rodriguez asserts that a passenger’s nervousness is normal behavior because most people get nervous when confronted by police officers. See id. at 35–37. Third, Rodriguez claims his refusal to sit in the police car during the traffic stop is a weak basis for suspecting criminal activity, given that Rodriguez had the legal right to remain in his car. See id. at 37. Fourth, Rodriguez argues that an officer’s “mere subjective impressions” about the vehicle occupants’ stated rationale for travel does not justify a reason to suspect wrongdoing. See id. at 38–39 (quoting United States v. Hernandez-Alvarado, 891 F.2d 1414, 1416 (9th Cir. 1989)). 

The United States argues that courts must adopt a “totality of the circumstances” test rather than assess each factor individually in order to determine whether there is reasonable suspicion to justify continued detention. See Brief for Respondent at 47. Furthermore, the United States claims that the reasonable-suspicion test requires an objective basis for suspecting criminal wrongdoing that does not need to rise to the standards of probable cause or preponderance of the evidence. See id. at 45. The United States argues that officers may continue to detain vehicle occupants if “the circumstances give rise to a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity unrelated to the stop is afoot.” See id. at 45 (quoting United States v. Chavez Loya, 528 F.3d 546, 553 (8th Cir. 2008)). The United States further asserts that an officer’s belief that a vehicle might contain contraband qualifies as reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, particularly when taking into account all of the factors under the circumstances. See id. at 46–47. Therefore, the United States rejects Rodriguez’s individualized analysis of the factors for an officer’s suspicion, emphasizing that the totality of the circumstances—the air freshener’s overwhelming smell, the passenger’s nervous state, the officer’s belief that the story lacked credibility, and Rodriguez’s refusal to sit in the police car—when viewed together, “more than sufficient[ly]” established reasonable suspicion. See id. at 47–48.

Discussion 

The Supreme Court will determine whether an officer may impose a de minimis delay—such as to perform a canine sniff for drugs—after the conclusion of a traffic stop, without additional legal justification to support the furthered investigation. See Brief for Petitioner at i. Rodriguez argues that once an officer completes a traffic stop, the officer may not further detain the motorist without reasonable suspicion to justify the extension of the stop. See id. at 12. The United States counters that a dog sniff is lawful as long as the sniff does not unreasonably exceed the amount of time required to resolve the traffic stop. See Brief for Respondent at 19–20. The Supreme Court’s decision will potentially impact the millions of people that are stopped each year for traffic violations. See Brief for Petitioner at 1–2. Specifically, the Supreme Court’s ruling will clarify the effect of the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness standard on routine traffic stops and determine the merits of a bright-line rule that would prohibit any “suspicionless” extension of a traffic stop. See generally id. at i, 15. 

RIGHT TO PRIVACY AND SECURITY VS. REASONABLE SEARCHES AND SEIZURES

Rodriguez argues that a ruling that lends police officers boundless discretion to determine when a traffic stop begins and ends violates the basic purpose of the Fourth Amendment. See Brief for Petitioner at 19. According to Rodriguez, the core of the Fourth Amendment is its reasonableness standard, which cabins officers’ and other government officials’ discretion to disturb an individual’s right to privacy and security. See id. To that end, Rodriguez worries that giving police officers such broad discretion will lead to patchwork results. See id. at 20. Specifically, Rodriguez points out that the de minimis rule permits officers to draw arbitrary lines defining the end of a traffic stop, even across identical situations, thus leading to different results regarding the bounds of the right to privacy and security. See id. In support of Rodriguez, the U.S. Justice Foundation (“USJF”) argues that any investigation beyond the issuance of a ticket intrudes upon motorists’ property rights, specifically, their “inherent right of freedom of movement.” See Brief of Amicus Curiae U.S. Justice Foundation et al., in Support of Petitioner at 11. The USJF believes that a violation of this common law property right violates the Fourth Amendment’s minimum safeguards against privacy invasions. See id. at 14. 

By contrast, the United States maintains that the purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to proscribe “unreasonable searches and seizures.” See Brief for Respondent at 11. Thus, the United States contends, the Fourth Amendment permits reasonable investigations during a traffic stop, which includes events before and after an officer issues a ticket. See id. at 11–12. In support of the United States’ position, the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation (“CJLF”) asserts that discretionary dog sniffs are less intrusive than other searches that may occur during a routine traffic stop, and thus are not the type of search that the Fourth Amendment was intended to proscribe. See Brief of Amicus Curiae The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, in Support of Petitioner at 16. To that end, the CJLF argues that dog sniffs should not be subject to the reasonable suspicion standard if the traffic stop itself is constitutional. See id. 17. 

BRIGHT-LINE LIMIT FOR TRAFFIC STOPS: GOOD OR BAD?

Rodriguez argues that a bright-line rule that cabins the scope of traffic stops is needed to prevent unreasonable seizures. See Brief for Petitioner at 15. Rodriguez claims that a bright-line rule would prohibit any extension of a completed traffic stop where the officer lacks reasonable suspicion or probable cause of criminal activity to support the extension. See id. at 31. According to Rodriguez, a bright-line rule is necessary to strike a fair balance between motorists’ and officers’ competing interests in privacy and effective law enforcement, respectively. See id. at 30. Rodriguez also asserts that a bright-line rule is an “easily administered” alternative that provides officers with clear guidance as to when a post-stop extension is constitutionally permissible. See id. at 30–31.

The United States and supporting amici are concerned about the negative effects of Rodriguez’s bright-line rule. See Brief for Respondent at 33. Specifically, the United States counters that the proposed rule would intrude upon officers’ ability to issue citations before conducting other lawful inquiries or to peaceably ask occupants to exit the vehicle prior to conducting a lawful dog sniff. See id. at 33–34. Illinois and several states, in support of the United States, also claim that a bright-line rule would cause officers to first conduct inquiries unrelated to the stop’s purpose—thereby prolonging the traffic stop—and force courts to second-guess precisely when the officer “should have” completed tasks related to the traffic stop. See generally Brief of Amici Curiae The State of Illinois et al., in Support of Respondent at 12–14. The states also claim, in support of the United States, that a bright-line rule would force officers to rush through the investigations without backup, thus exposing officers to more risk. See id. at 23. 

Conclusion 

The Supreme Court will determine whether, absent reasonable suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, an officer’s extension of a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable seizures. The parties dispute whether a dog sniff following a completed traffic violation investigation is constitutional and whether reasonable suspicion of criminal activity can justify extension. The Supreme Court’s ruling will clarify the scope of law enforcement’s investigative powers during a routine traffic stop and will determine the validity of a bright-line rule that prohibits extending a traffic stop absent reasonable suspicion.

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