Criminal Attorney Oklahoma Defense Lawyer Adam R. Banner OKLAHOMA CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY AT LAW

The Oklahoma Legal Group Blog

New Supreme Court Decision: Rodriguez v. Unites States

Adam Banner - Sunday, May 31, 2015

A recent Supreme Court decision that sounds like good news on the surface may have very little real-world applicability.

In Rodriguez v. United States, the Court ruled 6-3 that prolonging a traffic stop beyond its initial purpose is a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. For anyone who has ever been stopped by police on the side of the road, this case certainly seems like a fair and just ruling. The majority rightfully decided that a person should not be detained any longer than necessary to complete the stop, but the dissenting opinion argues that the majority is splitting hairs.

In order to understand the Court’s decision and any implications it may have, let’s take a look at the case.

Dennys Rodriguez was driving down a Nebraska highway when a K-9 officer noticed him driving erratically. The officer, Morgan Struble, stopped the vehicle and questioned Rodriguez about his driving. Rodriguez replied that he had swerved to avoid a pothole. Officer Struble ran a background check and then issued Rodriguez a warning about his driving.

At that point, Officer Struble asked Rodriguez if he could allow his drug dog to sniff the vehicle. Rodriguez refused to consent to the search, as is his right. However, Rodriguez’s refusal was enough for Officer Struble to become suspicious, and he radioed for backup.

Approximately eight minutes later, backup appeared. Next, the drug dog went around the car anddetected methamphetamine in the vehicle. Rodriguez was arrested and ultimately convicted after entering a conditional plea.

Rodriguez argued that forcing him to wait beyond the conclusion of the traffic stop in order to perform the drug sniff was unlawful and the prolonged detention constituted unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, agreed. Ginsberg pointed to three other cases in making the decision:

  • A traffic stop, like a “Terry stop” in Terry v. Ohio, is a brief stop based on reasonable suspicion, but not probable cause.
  • With “reasonable suspicion,” an officer may pat down or search a passenger in a traffic stop, according to Arizona v. Johnson.
  • The use of a drug-sniffing dog in a traffic stop is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment if the act does not “unreasonably” prolong the length of the stop, according to a unanimous decision in Illinois v. Caballes.

In this case, the Court found that the “mission” of the traffic stop was completed when Officer Struble issued a warning for erratic driving to Rodriguez. Detaining him beyond the completion of the mission—to wait for backup to perform the K-9 drug sniff—“unreasonably prolonged” the stop.

In his dissent, however, Justice Clarence Thomas called the majority opinion artificial and unworkable. He noted that had Officer Struble conducted the drug sniff without waiting for backup, he would not have been in violation of the Fourth Amendment. He says the eight minute wait for backup was not “unreasonable” and by calling it such, it unnecessarily complicates things. If the backup officer arrived more quickly, would the delay have been reasonable? If an Officer were more efficient and quick in conducting background checks, would it shorten the length of a traffic stop enough to allow for the arrival of backup?

A key question remains in the case of Rodriguez v. United States: did Officer Struble have reasonable suspicion to detain Rodriguez beyond the traffic stop? The Supreme Court ruled that police cannot prolong the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion, but the Supreme Court did not consider whether Officer Struble had reasonable suspicion to detain the driver in this case. Thus, on the surface, Rodriguez looks like a win, but the Supreme Court did not rule on the biggest issue. Instead, the issue is remanded to a lower court for consideration.

This means that the Supreme Court did not decide whether or not the officer’s stated reasonable suspicion was sufficient under the United States Constitution. Instead, we are left with a situation where, if the lower court finds that Officer Struble did indeed have reasonable suspicion, then Rodriguez becomes much less meaningful. We will still be left with the reality that each jurisdiction will likely still have a great deal of leeway in deciding whether certain factors can and will rise to the level of reasonable suspicion necessary for an officer to prolong what at first is a simple traffic stop.

It is a tricky word, “reasonable”…this is something that defense attorneys have long known. You may have seen the YouTube video a law student posted of a Fourth of July DUI checkpoint in Tennessee. An officer becomes irate when the driver, who had not been drinking, refuses to comply with any orders that violate his Constitutional rights. When the man refuses to consent to a search of his car, they order a K-9 sniff, and the dog “hits” on his vehicle, despite there being no drugs in the car.

In that case, the student alleges that the only “reasonable suspicion” for a search was that he annoyed the officers by upholding his rights.

It sounds as if this may be similar to the case in Rodriguez. At the end of the day Officer Struble’s “reasonable suspicion” to use the drug dog was that Rodriguez didn’t want him to, more or less. However, as Justice Thomas points out in pages 10-12 of his dissent, 1) Officer Struble smelled an “overwhelming odor of air freshener coming from the vehicle[,]” 2) the “passenger was more nervous than a typical passenger[,]” and 3) the occupants of the vehicle had suspicious travel plans.

How hard is it to say, “I smelled marijuana,” or, “the driver’s eyes were bloodshot and his speech slurred”? The odor of drugs or alcohol can be reasonable cause to suspect DUI or drug possession, but they are difficult factors to prove. The decision might influence the suspicious officer to rely more on the hard to prove (and more importantly hard to disprove) allegations when he or she feels the need to go on a fishing expedition for some other evidence of a potential crime. 

This fear is something that justice Alito acknowledges in his dissent when he notes that the majority’s opinion will likely just lead to agencies instructing their officers in the "prescribed" protocals that will allow them to detain a vehicle long enough, under their jurisdictions interpretation of Rodriguez, long enough to get a drug-dog on the scene.

The Supreme Court says that police cannot unreasonably prolong a traffic stop to investigate other crimes unless they have reasonable suspicion to do so. As any criminal defense attorney will attest to, reasonableness is a fine tightrope to balance in determining justice, and it often changes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

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