The United States Supreme Court and the Length/Scope of Traffic Stops
Being stopped for traffic violations is an all too common occurrence. Whether it’s for speeding, rolling through a stop sign, or running a red light, we have all been in the uncomfortable position of being pulled over by police officers. As of April 21, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling that significantly limits the length of traffic stops, and investigative tools available to police officers during stops. In a 6-3 vote in Rodriguez v. United States, Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, stating that “A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation. . . . [and] authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been – completed.” According to the Court, an officer’s mission in a traffic stop includes determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, and other “ordinary inquires incident to [the traffic] stop.” These ordinary inquiries typically involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, inspecting the automobiles registration and proof of insurance, and other checks to ensure traffic, and officer safety.
Effectively, Justice Ginsburg’s opinion means that traffic stops must remain reasonably short. Police officers are permitted to stop drivers for only as long as it takes the officer to reasonably address the infraction. Unless there is reasonable suspicion of a crime other than the traffic violation, officers are not permitted to prolong the traffic stop for inquires uncommon to such a violation. Specifically, Justice Ginsburg noted that officers cannot prolong a traffic stop just to perform a dog-sniffing search absent reasonable suspicion. Dog-sniffing searches are not ordinary incidents of a traffic stop, as they do not pertain to traffic and officer safety interests, but rather “the Government’s endeavor to detect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular.” Therefore, conducting a dog-sniff search without independent reasonable suspicion lengthens the time of the stop, and violates The Fourth Amendment’s shield against unreasonable seizures.
It is important to remember that if there is reasonable suspicion, officers are permitted to prolong a traffic stop to perform investigations unrelated to the traffic violation. And, without reasonable suspicion, officers are permitted to perform certain, unrelated investigations that do not lengthen a roadside detention.
If you or someone you know has been arrested during a traffic stop, it is important to contact an experienced attorney immediately. The attorneys at Tate & Bowen LLP are here to assist and protect your rights. For information on fighting criminal charges relating to a traffic stop, please contact Tate & Bowen LLP at 317-296-5294 to help guide you through the process.
FN1 – For reference and full text See Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015)
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