Supreme Court Limits Cops' Authority During Traffic Stops & Sets An Important Precedent

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled in Rodriguez vs. United States that police could not extend a routine traffic stop for reasons unrelated to their initial purpose for pulling the driver over, including scans by drug dogs, unless police had a reasonable suspicion of a potential crime or there were safety concerns. Authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 6-3 decision took a firm stance behind the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions against “unreasonable searches and seizures” and curtailed police authority to investigate drivers for potential criminal offenses without reasonable suspicion.

While the full extent of its impact on police practices remains unclear, the Court’s decision comes as activists mobilize against the misuse and abuse of police power, particularly when it comes to stopping and charging African Americans and other minorities at disproportionate rates.

“We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures,” Ginsburg wrote in her majority opinion. “The 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, and attend to related safety concerns ... Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.”

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The case that would become Rodriguez vs. United States began in California when a police officer pulled over a vehicle that he saw veer onto the shoulder. Officer Morgan Struble conducted his usual checks of the vehicle, driver’s registration, etc. and gave out a traffic ticket to the driver, Dennys Rodriguez, in about 22 minutes.

Yet after completing all the normal protocol for a routine traffic stop, Struble asked Rodriguez if he would submit his car to a pass from a drug-detecting dog. Rodriguez refused, and Struble called for back up to conduct the search. On its circle of the car, the drug dog led the officers to a stash of methamphetamine. Rodriguez was charged with the possession of a controlled substance and ultimately sentenced to five years in jail.

In a series of appeals, Rodriguez’s attorneys have argued that the evidence should have been suppressed because the police officers had no authority to conduct a drug sweep after stopping their client solely on the basis of a usual traffic violation. Without reasonable suspicion that Rodriguez might be in the possession of drugs, they couldn’t search his car with a drug dog without violating his constitutional rights.

Ginsburg, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan agreed.

In turn, the three court members who dissented — Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy — argued that Officer Struble did have enough evidence of potential law-breaking to constitute a reasonable suspicion. (The car smelled like air freshener, and the passenger seemed nervous.)

They also noted that the majority’s decision would prove impractical for police officers as they operate in the field. In his dissent, Thomas noted that the Rodriguez case did not set out clear guidelines for what constituted a reasonable amount of time for an officer to conduct a traffic stop.

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As Ian Millhiser notes at ThinkProgress, it is not clear to what extent the Rodriguez decision will impact how police officers conduct themselves in the field or how the courts judge the constitutionality of their actions:

“Though officers may not prolong a stop beyond the amount of time needed to address a stop’s “mission,” the Court’s description of how much time is needed for such a stop is necessarily quite vague,” Millhiser wrote.

But the Court’s intent is clear: citizens have certain rights to bodily integrity and privacy that police officers can only intervene in if they reasonably suspect the person is up to no good, not just on a whim.

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As activists and communities of color make increasingly vocal protests against abusive police interventions, including the misuse of physical force, the courts may turn more attention to defining and upholding the limits of police power. The Justice Department’s recent investigations into the racially skewed and abusive police practices in Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrate how easily public authorities in criminal justice system can manipulate marginalized communities — communities who are both unaware of the full extent of their constitutional protections and often unable to mobilize the resources to defend those rights, even if they did.

Historically, the Court has stayed away from addressing substantive racial inequalities in public services, preferring instead to use procedural questions of civil liberties and criminal justice to address systemic inequalities. The Rodriguez decision falls directly into that tradition, but it remains to be seen whether its precedent will serve to curtail the sorts of police action at routine traffic stops that leads to so many more African American and Latino drivers facing illegal searches and trumped up charges.

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