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Supreme Court settles latest Fourth Amendment dog-sniff case

April 22, 2015 by NCC Staff


For the third time in recent years, the Supreme Court has decided a case involving the constitutional sniffing powers of police dogs.

United_states_supreme_court_building-459x300In a 6-3 decision on Tuesday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her majority opinion that police officers in Nebraska needed a search warrant after they deployed a trained drug-sniffing dog after a traffic stop.

Link: Read The Court’s Opinion

The case of Rodriguez v. United States involved the core issue of the timing of how long can an officer delay using a dog after the person in such a stop has received a ticket. In the Rodriguez case, the dog was called on to sniff the car in question about seven or eight minutes after the ticket was written. There was no dispute, according to petitions filed by both sides, that the pullover was legitimate.

“Absent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures,” Ginsburg said, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The police officer claimed that the “de minimus,” or brief delay, was caused after he called for a second officer to arrive as backup when he deployed the dog. (The canine officer had remained in the car on the scene during the traffic stop and ticket writing.)

Rodriguez wanted drugs found in car thrown out of court as evidence because of the delay after the traffic stop concluded. The Eighth Circuit court found that a delay of up to 10 minutes after the ticket writing was acceptable. Rodriguez’s lawyer argued that ruling conflicted with state court and Supreme Court precedents.

“[T]he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’ — to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop,” Ginsburg said. “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.”

In his dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the officer had reasonable suspicion in the case, and he didn’t think the ruling made sense.

“The majority’s holding to the contrary is irreconcilable with Caballes and a number of other routine police practices, distorts the distinction between traffic stops justified by probable cause and those justified by reasonable suspicion, and abandons reasonableness as the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment,” Thomas said.

Despite the ruling, the Rodriguez case isn't over. A second question was not decided by the court and sent back to a lower court to determine if there really was an independent justification for the search.

Back in early 2013, the Court ruled in two other important Fourth Amendment cases involving nosy police dogs. The cases were closely watched because they represented the practical limitations of using the services of these talented drug-sniffing canine cops.

In what was a split decision for the dogs, in one case the nine Justices said it was OK for a canine officer to sniff out drugs on his own as part of a traffic stop, but in another case, it was not OK for a dog to sniff out drugs inside a house without a warrant.

Both incidents took part in Florida. In Florida v. Harris, canine officer Aldo was on the scene of a traffic stop when his human partner was refused permission to search a car that was pulled over for a traffic violation. Aldo then alerted to a substance on a car handle, which the Justices upheld as evidence of probable cause for the officer to search within the car.

The other case, Florida v. Jardines, involved canine officer Franky, who was accompanying his partner after police received a tip about an alleged marijuana growing activity inside a house. Franky was on the house’s porch when he alerted to the presence of marijuana. The Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Franky’s sniff was a Fourth Amendment violation, since a search warrant was needed before Franky’s talents were deployed.

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