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.

BIG U.S. Supreme Court decision on Search & Seizure

Missouri Criminal Defense LawyerIn 1981 the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in the case of New York v. Belton, that if an occupant of a motor vehicle was arrested, the police could search the entire passenger compartment of the vehicle to look for weapons or evidence of a crime.

Under the fourth amendment such a search would normally be considered unreasonable and therefore unconstitutional, unless a search warrant was obtained. Even so, the Belton case has been the rule in Missouri ever since and gave the police an absolute right to search the entire passenger compartment of a vehicle once any occupant of that vehicle has been arrested.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona v.  Gant overruled its 28 year old decision in Belton by holding that the police could not search inside a vehicle, once the arrested person was away from the car, unless they had reason to believe that evidence of the crime might be found in the vehicle.

This is a huge decision.  It is huge because a large proportion of drug arrests occur when the police arrest someone for an unrelated offense such as driving while revoked.  Once the person is handcuffed and placed in the patrol car, the police always return to the vehicle and search the passenger compartment thoroughly.

It will be interesting to see how both police and citizens react to this change in the current search and seizure law.

Citizens may be more likely to step out of their vehicle after being pulled over so as to ensure that they will not have their vehicle searched if they were arrested for some reason.

Search and seizureOne wonders if some police might be tempted to change their current practice of getting suspects out of a vehicle before arresting them. It’s hard to imagine a driver being arrested while still seated in his car and then being commanded to sit still while the officer searches the vehicle around him.  If that were permitted, we might see the police running public service announcements telling drivers to remain in their vehicles when stopped, lest they be attacked by police officers who–misunderstanding the person’s actions-believe they are in danger.

I doubt the courts will permit the police to search vehicles by forcing arrested persons to stay inside the vehicle after arrest. If that is the case, then getting out of your car at a traffic stop would be an unnecessary precaution. It might also serve as a signal to police that evidence of a crime may be in the vehicle.

Another thing we may see is an escalation of vehicles being towed by police after an arrest (for safety reasons, of course). Then the police would thoroughly search the vehicle under what is known as the “inventory” exception to the search warrant requirement.  Click here for “inventory search” explanation.  A driver fortunate enough to be pulled over near a legal parking space may want to take advantage of that opportunity and deny police an excuse to tow the car.

We will have to see how this all plays out.


Come back with a warrant