Supreme Court Rules Making Suspects Wait For Drug-Sniffing Dog Is Unconstitutional

By McCarton Ackerman 04/23/15

The court ruled that holding a suspect without probable cause violates the Fourth Amendment.

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In a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court made a groundbreaking ruling on Tuesday that forbids police from holding a suspect without probable cause, even for as little as 10 minutes, in order for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive on scene.

The ruling was made in the case of Rodriguez v. United States. Dennys Rodriguez was initially pulled over on a Nebraska highway and then issued a warning for erratic driving. But after he refused to have his vehicle searched by a drug-sniffing dog, the officer at the scene detained him for “seven or eight minutes” while a backup officer arrived so that the original officer could retrieve his dog. The dog eventually found methamphetamine and Rodriguez was indicted for drug possession.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that Rodriguez’s search was both illegal and unconstitutional. While drug dogs could sniff cars during a routine traffic stop, the length of the stop can’t be extended to carry out this task. She also ruled that evidence gathered from the search should not be used at trial.

“[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,” she wrote. “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.”

Not all of the justices were in agreement. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Anthony Kennedy argued that police can detain people to look at other possible law violations, this instance should be no different.

“Had Officer Struble arrested, handcuffed, and taken Rodriguez to the police station for his traffic violation, he would have complied with the Fourth Amendment,” wrote Thomas. "But because he made Rodriguez wait for seven or eight extra minutes until a dog arrived, he evidently committed a constitutional violation. Such a view of the Fourth Amendment makes little sense.”

In March 2013, the Supreme Court also ruled that it was unconstitutional for police to bring drug-sniffing police dogs onto a person’s property without first getting a search warrant.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.