Constitutional Law—Fourth Amendment—Police Dog Sniffs And “Completing The Mission”

by J. Scott White

After midnight on March 27, 2012, a Mercury Mountaineer, driven by defendant Dennys Rodriguez, drifted onto the shoulder of Nebraska Highway 275 before shifting back into the proper lane. Officer Morgan Struble observed the maneuver while driving with his drug-sniffing dog and initiated a traffic stop at 12:06 A.M. Officer Struble noticed the strong scent of air freshener as he began talking to the defendant and his passenger Scott Pollman. Officer Struble gathered their licenses and registration, and asked the defendant to join him in the patrol car while he conducted a records check. The defendant indicated that he preferred to wait in his own vehicle, and Officer Struble allowed him to do so. After conducting a background check, Officer Struble returned to the vehicle to question the defendant and Pollman regarding where they were going. Pollman stated that they were on their way to Norfolk, Nebraska, after looking at a Ford Mustang that they were interested in purchasing in Omaha, Nebraska.

At 12:28 A.M., Officer Struble issued a written warning and returned the defendant’s documents. The officer then asked the defendant if he would consent to a dog search around his vehicle, which the defendant refused. Nevertheless, Officer Struble called for backup, because of safety concerns, before conducting a dog sniff. Another unit arrived seven to eight minutes later, and Officer Struble walked his dog around the car. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs a minute or two later. A search of the vehicle revealed a large bag of methamphetamine, and the defendant was arrested.

“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 . . . .” The defendant moved to suppress the evidence from the car search on the grounds that Officer Struble unreasonably “prolonged the traffic stop without reasonable suspicion in order to conduct the dog sniff.” The magistrate judge denied the motion, holding that while “Officer Struble had [no]thing other than a rather large hunch,” the eight-minute extension of the traffic stop was a de minimis intrusion on the defendant’s “Fourth Amendment rights and was therefore permissible.” Adopting this analysis, the district court denied the motion to suppress. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that a seven- to eight-minute delay was consistent with delays that the court had previously held permissible. On certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, held, reversed.

The use of a dog search on a suspect’s vehicle that prolongs the “time reasonably required to complete [the stop’s] mission” is unlawful absent reasonable suspicion. The Supreme Court thus concluded that a seven- to eight-minute seizure of the defendant’s vehicle after the officer issued the warning was an unreasonable detention under the Fourth Amendment, and remanded the case to determine whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to initiate a dog sniff. Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015).

 

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