The Supreme Court delivered a rare win for civil liberties in a landmark ruling handed down today. The court ruled that police officers violate the Constitution when they extend an otherwise completed traffic stop to allow time for a police dog to sniff for drugs and other contraband.
The judges, voting 6-3, said that officers cannot lengthen the stop to perform a dog sniff unless they have specific reason to suspect the suspect's car is carrying illicit items.
The justices ruled that police authority “ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are -- or reasonably should have been -- completed,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.
The ruling is a surprising victory for Dennys Rodriguez, a man facing a five year prison sentence for carrying a bag of methamphetamine in his car during a 2012 traffic stop.
Rodriguez was pulled over on a Nebraska highway for driving out of his lane and was then made to wait an additional seven or eight minutes for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive and search his vehicle. He received the sniffer search after he had received a warning ticket for the traffic violation.
While the high court ruled a decade ago that police can conduct a dog sniff during a traffic stop without running afoul of the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures the latest case tested whether officers could continue detaining a car while waiting for a trained dog to arrive.
Predictably, justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy dissented. Writing for the dissenting group, Thomas said Ginsburg’s reasoning would link the constitutionality of a drug sniff to the officer’s efficiency in completing the traffic stop, a rather thing line of reasoning given the large ramifications of the already questionable sniffing practice.
Despite the still problematic use of sniffer dogs, who cannot speak or otherwise clearly indicate their reasoning for 'signalling' a suspicion, today marked a rare instance where the high court has pared back the level of invasiveness permitted by law enforcement.
The case is Rodriguez v. United States, 13-9972.