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Supreme Court Rules that the Police May No Longer Detain “Traffic Violators” Longer than Necessary

Posted by Steve Karimi | May 05, 2015 | 0 Comments

On April 21, The U.S. Supreme Court doled out a landmark ruling which held that that police may not detain a traffic violator longer than needed to address the actual traffic violation, so as to allow police time to conduct a dog sniff for drugs. See Rodriguez v. United States (argued January 21, 2015, decided April 21, 2015). This case stems from an incident which occurred on March 27, 2012. The defendant Denny Rodriguez was stopped alongside a Nebraska highway by Officer Morgan Struble who subsequently questioned him, checked his license, registration, and whether he had any outstanding arrest warrants. He also checked the documents of Rodriguez's passenger as well. It would take 20 minutes after the stop began for Officer Struble to conduct a dog-snif search of his car. Rodriguez was detained for saying “no” to a search, and additional officers arrived at the scene. The k-9 sniffed out a bag of amphetamines and was sentenced to five years in prison for possession and intent to distribute methamphetamine.

Rodriguez's appealed to the Supreme Court who granted certiorari (an amazingly rare event) and the Supreme Court with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking for the 6-3 majority held that officers may check a driver's license, registration, and any outstanding warrants. The stop becomes "unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a warning ticket." Because the Supreme Court is the highest court in the U.S., its decision is binding on all states.

Basics Rights of a Traffic Stop

Many factors contribute to an officer's level of authority in a given situation, and the different standards of proof required in each situation can be confusion. First and foremost, traffic stops and roadblocks fall under the fulcrum of the 4th Amendment's protection against search and seizure because they interfere with a driver's freedom of movement. This means that beyond stopping someone for a violation of a traffic law, police must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct in order to conduct a warrantless search.

  • a. Probable cause vs. reasonable suspicion

Probable cause exists when police have knowledge of facts (ie. hard evidence) that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the particular motorist is committing, has committed, or is about to commit a crime. Reasonable suspicion is arbitrary to the officer. It means that based on the officer's training and experience, s/he has reason to believe criminal activity is going on (also called a Terry stop). It is a lower standard than probable cause, but still allows police to briefly detain a person to investigate him or her. In both standards of proof, police must be able to point to specific and articulated facts to support their suspicion.

  • b. Dog sniffs are considered searches under the 4thAmendment

As noted in the Supreme Court decision, unlike a typical traffic stop which is aimed at enforcing the traffic code, a dog sniff is aimed at detecting evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing. Thus, a traffic stop may not be prolonged without independently supported reasonable suspicion. This recent ruling puts police on notice that once they stop someone for a valid traffic infraction, a clocks starts ticking that courts can view as an indication that a particular search was reasonable or unreasonable under the 4th Amendment.

  • c. Rights of Passengers

Passengers cannot be held responsible for the driver's conduct and are generally free to leave, unless police become suspicious of them during the course of the stop- then the same standards described above applies.

  • d. Refusing a search

As illustrated by Rodriguez v. United States, citizens have the right to refuse to consent to a search. This refusal does not constitute reasonable suspicion of a crime.

But What About Just Taking a REALLY Long Time Just to Issue a Traffic Ticket?

This is one of the murkiest areas of 4th amendment law. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court also ruled that police may not prolong detention of a car and driver beyond the time reasonably required to address the actual traffic violation. It has never been explicitly stated how long is too long to simply issue a ticket with no additional searches. 25 minutes? 45 minutes? An hour? If the police are simply issuing you a ticket with no additional questions, the standard is however long it should “reasonably” take police to conduct the investigation (ie. checking your license, registration, and outstanding warrants). If something that simple takes 45min to an hour for example, you will likely have a good argument that you were “seized” and unlawfully detained. If you choose to challenge a detention, your lawyer will have to argue that police kept you longer than necessary under the circumstances.

Addressing Violations

Violations of the 4th Amendment are not taken lightly by the courts because it is a fundamental constitutional right. On the criminal side, evidence seized from an unlawful search and seizure is invalid and will be inadmissible in court, as with evidence obtained from Miranda violations. On the civil side, plaintiffs who have been victims of constitutional violations have a private right of action to sue the state actor (ie. police officer or department) under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code (part of the Civil Rights Act). Civil claims can ask for uncapped damages for emotional distress punitive, and compensatory damages.

Let My Extensive Experience as a Former Prosecutor Work For You."

Criminal defense attorney Steve Karimi is dedicated to protecting the freedom, constitutional rights, and reputation of each of his clients. As a former prosecutor for the state of Washington, he is familiar with the administrative and prosecutorial processes and will seek a compromise or dismissal whenever possible. He will handle everything in your case with detail and zeal, including all steps necessary to build your defense, and to keep you out of jail. For example, he will file a motion to strike evidence if it has been shown that the police violated your constitutionalrights whilst detaining you at a traffic stop. He specializes in all misdemeanor and felony cases, including drug charges. Contact Snohomish and King County criminal defense attorney Steve Karimi today. We look forward to providing you with superior criminal defense representation.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.


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