US Supreme Court restricts length of traffic stops

judgeWhen stopped by police it is seldom a good idea to agree to a search of your car, your purse, yourself, your house, or anything else. Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme court in Rodriguez v. United States underlines this truth:

FACTS:

A cop pulled over the defendant Rodriguez for a minor traffic violation. He checked Rodriguez’ license and registration, then issued Rodriguez a warning ticket. After concluding the reason for the stop, he asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his drug-sniffing dog around the car. Rodriguez refused, so the cop made him wait 7-8 minutes until a backup officer arrived. A drug dog then sniffed the car and drugs were found. Rodriguez was convicted.

HELD:

The Supreme Court threw out the conviction, noting that an officer’s job during traffic stops typically includes only those issues involved in the safe operation of a motor vehicle: checking for a valid operator’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. The court held a dog sniff is not part of an officer’s “traffic mission.”

Unless the officer has a reasonable and fact-based suspicion that further criminal activity is afoot, he may not prolong the stop beyond that time necessary to complete the traffic investigation. In Rodriguez’ case, the legal traffic stop ended the moment Rodriguez was handed his warning ticket.

The court also made it clear that it did not matter whether the dog sniff occurred in the middle of the stop or at the end. A valid stop ends and the illegal detention begins either:

  1. as soon as the investigation concludes; or
  2. as soon as it ought to have been concluded, which ever comes first.

The cop cannot extend the length of the detention–whether during or after the stop–unless he has additional evidence of a crime.  Even if the delay is very brief, any continued detention is considered illegal.

Change would let Missouri police hold suspects twice as long without charges.

When a police officer arrests a person for any criminal offense–whether a misdemeanor or felony–the suspect can be held in jail for 24 hours while police and prosecutors decide whether the person will be charged with a crime. At the end of the 24 hours, the prosecutor must either file a charge or the person must be released.

State Sen. Jack Goodman is considering filing a bill that would increase the 24-hour detention time to 48 hours. Click for  Story: Bill would give prosecutors extra 24 hours to file charges

When I was a prosecutor someone was always trying to get this time expanded. A few years ago the time limit for holding uncharged suspects was increased from 20 hours to 24 hours. Four more hours. Not a real big deal, but it meant having to do less math, so I was for it.

The trouble is that many persons that are arrested get released at the end of 24 hours because there is no case against them or the prosecutor just wants to take a week or two to consider the evidence. This change would mean that a lot of people–who may never be convicted of anything–will be spending most of the weekend in jail.

As far as helping the police and prosecutors, this new law would better allow them to enjoy their evenings and weekends. Sometimes an officer makes an arrest near the end of his shift and he might have to stay late to put together the paperwork for the prosecutor.  If we double the time uncharged suspects could be held, the reports could be completed at a far more leisurely pace.

The truth is that this bill is unnecessary. Twenty-four hours is plenty of time to put together criminal charges without anyone working up a sweat. If police don’t have enough evidence to file charges, they ought not be arresting anyone. That is how it works and it works fine.

While this change not essential, it would help police, prosecutors and judges protect their times of rest and relaxation. I like my free time as much as the next guy, but it’s unfair to the prisoner who sits–unconvicted & uncharged–waiting for someone to read his case and decide whether charges will be filed.