Supreme Court revisits seizures and searches that violate 4th Amendment

Supreme Court revisits seizures and searches that violate 4th Amendment

This month the United States Supreme Court (USSC) issued a decision the revisits seizure and subsequent searches that violate citizen’s 4th Amendment Right to be free of unreasonable searches. For the last several months the USSC has been affirming our civil rights on the federal level, and in this day and age it is nice to see this jurisprudence.


This month the United States Supreme Court (USSC) issued a decision the revisits seizure and subsequent searches that violate citizen’s 4th Amendment Right to be free of unreasonable searches. For the last several months the USSC has been affirming our civil rights on the federal level, and in this day and age it is nice to see this jurisprudence.

The United States Federal Constitution protects us from “unreasonable” search and seizure. Here in WA state reasonableness is not the floor of protection, rather search and seizure requires the authority of law. This recent USSC does not necessarily protect citizens in WA any more than we already have in a direct manner, but it does offer us increased protection. This is because it raises the “bar” closer to our state protection by way of analyses of the search and seizure in this case.

The case is that of RODRIGUEZ v. UNITED STATES. The facts of the case are as follows:

Just after midnight on March 27, 2012, police officer Morgan Struble observed a Mercury Mountaineer veer slowly onto the shoulder of Nebraska State Highway 275 for one or two seconds and then jerk back onto the road. Nebraska law prohibits driving on highway shoulders, and on that basis, Struble pulled the Mountaineer over at 12:06 a.m. Struble is a K–9 officer with the Valley Police Department in Nebraska, and his dog Floyd was in his patrol car that night. Two men were in the Mountaineer: the driver, Dennys Rodriguez, and a front-seat passenger, Scott Pollman.

Struble approached the Mountaineer on the passenger’s side. After Rodriguez identified himself, Struble asked him why he had driven onto the shoulder. Rodriguez replied that he had swerved to avoid a pothole. Struble then gathered Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, and asked Rodriguez to accompany him to the patrol car. Rodriguez asked if he was required to do so, and Struble answered that he was not. Rodriguez decided to wait in his own vehicle. After running a records check on Rodriguez, Struble returned to the Mountaineer.

Struble asked passenger Pollman for his driver’s license and began to question hima bout where the two men were coming from and where they were going. Pollman replied that they had traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, to look at a Ford Mustang that was for sale and that they were returning to Norfolk, Nebraska. Struble returned again to his patrol car, where he completed a records check on Pollman, and called for a second officer. Struble then began writing a warning ticket for Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder of the road.

Struble returned to Rodriguez’s vehicle a third time to issue the written warning. By 12:27 or 12:28 a.m., Struble had finished explaining the warning to Rodriguez, and had given back to Rodriguez and Pollman the documents obtained from them. As Struble later testified, at that point, Rodriguez and Pollman “had all their documents back and a copy of the written warning. I got all the reason[s] for the stop out of the way[,] . . . took care of all the business.”

Nevertheless, Struble did not consider Rodriguez “free to leave.” Although justification for the traffic stop was “out of the way,” Struble asked for permission to walk his dog around Rodriguez’s vehicle. Rodriguez said no. Struble then instructed Rodriguez to turn off the ignition, exit the vehicle, and stand in front of the patrol car to wait for the second officer. Rodriguez complied. At 12:33 a.m., a deputy sheriff arrived. Struble retrieved his dog and led him twice around the Mountaineer. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs halfway through Struble’s second pass. All told, seven or eight minutes had elapsed from the time Struble issued the written warning until the dog indicated the presence of drugs. A search of the vehicle revealed a large bag of methamphetamine.

Rodriguez was indicted in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska on one count of possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. He moved to suppress the evidence seized from his car on the ground, among others, that Struble had prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff.

After receiving evidence, a Magistrate Judge recommended that the motion be denied. The Magistrate Judge found no probable cause to search the vehicle independent of the dog alert (apart from “information given by the dog,” “Officer Struble had [no]thing other than a rather large hunch”). He further found that no reasonable suspicion supported the detention once Struble issued the written warning. He concluded, however, that under Eighth Circuit precedent, extension of the stop by “seven to eight minutes” for the dog sniff was only a de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights and was therefore permissible.

The first appeals court found the seizure one without legal cause (a concept in WA that is absolutely necessary), but because the detention was short and in ore words “reasonable” under the circumstances, failed to apply the legal remedy of suppression of the after acquired evidence, a ruling that would exclude the drugs and leave the State with no evidence to prosecute.

The USSC accepted review of this case to answer the questions of whether police may as a matter of routine extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, in order to conduct a dog sniff. The answer was and is No. To do so, specifically to do so with no legal cause, is a violation of the driver’s rights. To the uninitiated in Constitutional law the question you may have is Why?

The purpose of the stop was to address the infraction – the driving with wheels off the roadway by virtue of the brief swerve. This is the purpose of the stop, and as a result of it being a seizure, the stop and the interference of the driver’s right ot be free from unreasonable detention requires that the seizure may “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.” At the time of the stop the officer has legal authority for the stop (this is the case in WA) but that authority ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed. One the purpose of the stop is completed, the officer no longer has authority to further detain. Unless, there is a reason to do so. In WA, Title 46 RCW requires an officer to release a driver after the purpose of the stop has been achieved. This statute has been tempered with case law that permits an extension of the stop, but only when cause to do exists.

With respect to the USSC, and to paraphrase and sum up their opinion, an officer may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop. But s/he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual. Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, an officer’s mission includes “ordinary inquiries incident to [the traffic] stop. Typically such inquiries involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance. These checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly. A dog sniff, by contrast, is a measure aimed at “detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.”

A dog sniff was beyond the limits of the stop because there was no reason, no cause, no facts. To support the continued detention. A hunch is not the same a legal cause. As such the officer violated the drivers right and that requires suppression. Interestingly, the USSC did not order this, rather they remanded the case back to the lower court to enter a ruling based on their ruling that it was an unlawful detention. The decision is no less effective or meaningful simply because they ordered the lower court to do this in lieu of ordering the evidence suppressed.

The USSC gave meaning to the words on the Constitution. The words themselves do nothing except exist on paper and it is up to the Court, all Courts of law at all levels, to breath life into them and allow them to be actionable.