AP/Rich Pedroncelli

The nation's highest court has ruled that police officers can't draw out a stop for the sole reason of waiting for drug sniffing dogs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that police officers cannot prolong traffic stops in order to release the hounds—the drug-sniffing hounds, that is.

In a 6-3 decision, the court found that Nebraska police officers had violated the Fourth Amendment by extending a 2012 traffic stop by less than 10 minutes to allow a drug-sniffing dog to circle a vehicle. The driver, Dennys Rodriguez, had been pulled over for driving on a highway shoulder, and though the investigating officer had a drug-sniffing dog already in his police car, he waited for backup before initiating a drug search. The search revealed that Rodriguez was also in possession of a large quantity of methamphetamine.

The case turns on what police officers are permitted —and have time—to do during routine traffic stops. In other words: What should a traffic stop be? Officers are allowed to run checks for criminal records, outstanding warrants, driver's licenses and valid registrations because, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explains in her majority opinion, these "checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly."

But the court rules that officers' "traffic missions" do not extend to detaining drivers to call in the dogs without a reasonable suspicion that drivers are breaking drug laws. As Ginsburg writes, police authority "ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed." For this reason, the court rules that "police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures."

This sounds like great news for Fourth Amendment defenders. But how the rule will be applied in practice is still unclear. Critically, Ginsburg's opinion does not question the constitutionality of dog sniffs, which the court has previously ruled are not undue invasions of privacy. Cornell law professor Sherry F. Colb explains it in a post for Justia's Verdict blog:

In a number of cases, including Illinois v. Caballes, the U.S. Supreme Court has said that a dog sniff for drugs is not a Fourth Amendment “search” triggering the requirement that it be “reasonable.” In the language of the 1967 case of Katz v. United States, having a dog sniff a suspect’s property for contraband invades no “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Because the only information or matter exposed by the dog to his or her police officer handler in the course of a dog sniff is that the target either does or does not possess contraband, a dog sniff leaves intact all innocent and legitimate privacy.

The Rodriguez ruling means that officers with dogs will still be allowed to conduct drug sniffs while they're completing the "traffic mission"—that is, checking out your license and registration. They just can't extend the stop to conduct the drug sniff. This gives less-than-scrupulous officers an opening: If they slow down their processing sufficiently, they allow the dog units time to show up and conduct their search. Justice Samuel Alito motions towards this in his dissent: "I would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall when police instructors teach this rule to officers who make traffic stops," he writes in a parenthetical.

Still, it's interesting to see the court grappling with questions of what a traffic stop is in its essence. This is incredibly relevant stuff in a world where a routine stop can end with an innocent man bleeding out on the grass.

Top image: AP/Rich Pedroncelli

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