Supreme Court Puts Limits on (Dog) Sniffing Around

In 2012 a Nebraska police officer pulled over a motorist for driving on the shoulder of a highway. The officer had his trained K-9 in tow. In the course of the stop, the officer spoke with both the driver and the passenger, took information from them, and ran warrant checks.

The officer was suspicious, but didn’t seem to have any objective indication that anything other than a traffic violation was in the air. He called for a second officer, then issued and explained a warning ticket to the driver.

After issuing the ticket (about 20 minutes into the encounter), the officer continued to detain the men. His colleague arrived on scene; the officer then walked his dog around the vehicle twice. This was about seven or eight minutes after he had issued the ticket.

The dog found drugs.

The U.S. Supreme Court considered these facts in a decision this month. The majority acknowledged that dog sniffs during lawful traffic stops are legal under the Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution. But it explained that an officer needs reasonable suspicion to prolong a traffic stop for a dog sniff. (Rodriguez v. U.S., 575 U. S. ____ (2015).)

If the dog sniff occurs during “the time reasonably required to complete” the stop’s “mission,” then it’s okay. Checking the driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, and running a warrant check are part of a traffic-stop mission. But once the traffic-stop tasks are or should be complete, an officer can’t continue to hold a driver. Whether the dog sniff happens before or after the officer issues the ticket, the sniff is illegal if it adds time to the stop.

The Supreme Court explained this rule, then sent the Rodriguez case to a lower court for a determination of whether the officer had reasonable suspicion that would justify the extended detention—reasonable suspicion of something other than the traffic infraction. Without that suspicion, the drugs the dog unearthed would be inadmissible in court.

The bottom line: Officers can’t drag out your average roadside detention in order to get a dog to sniff around your vehicle.