High Court Divided on Delayed K-9 Search

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Finding that a police officer waited too long to employ his drug-sniffing dog, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a Nebraska meth conviction Tuesday.
     Valley police officer Morgan Struble and his K-9 partner Floyd pulled over Dennys Rodriguez just after midnight on March 27, 2012.
     Rodriguez had apparently attracted the officer’s attention when his car drifted onto the shoulder of the highway and then jerked back onto the road.
     Struble said Rodriguez would not make eye contact while explaining that he had swerved to avoid a pothole.
     After Struble completed a records check on Rodriguez and his passenger, and issued Rodriguez a written warning, the driver refused to consent to consent to letting Struble walk Floyd around the car.
     Struble walked Floyd around the car only after a deputy sheriff arrived at 12:33. The dog signaled that the car contained drugs, and the officers uncovered a large bag of methamphetamine.
     Though Rodriguez claimed that the dog sniff had unreasonably prolonged the stop without reasonable suspicion, in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights, a federal judge in Omaha refused to suppress the evidence.
     Rodriguez retained his right to appeal that issue but pleaded guilty to one count of possessing with intent to distribute 50 grams of a meth-containing substance.
     The case went to the Supreme Court last year after the 8th Circuit affirmed that the “seven- or eight-minute delay” Rodriguez faced was similar to delays that precedent has deemed reasonable in other circumstances.
     After oral arguments in January, the court reversed 6-3 for Rodriguez on Tuesday.
     The decision clarifies the court’s 2005 precedent on dog-sniff Fourth Amendment issues from Illinois v. Caballes, which cautioned that a traffic stop “can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of issuing a warning ticket.
     Though an officer “may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop,” the majority emphasized that “he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.”
     “Ordinary inquiries” that are incidental to a traffic typically involve “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance,” the nine-page opinion states.
     “These checks serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court.
     “A dog sniff, by contrast, is a measure aimed at ‘detect[ing] evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing,'” she continued.
     “Lacking the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission,” she added.
     Ginsburg scoffed at the government’s attempt to justify adding dog-sniff searches if the officers move quickly. This argument effectively says “an officer can earn bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation,” she wrote.
     Each of the three dissenting justices added their own 2 cents.
     The longest at 12 pages came from Justice Clarence Thomas, who said that the stop here was “reasonably executed.”
     “The stop here was ‘lawful at its inception and otherwise executed in a reasonable manner,'” Thomas wrote. “As in Caballes, ‘conducting a dog sniff [did] not change the character of [the] traffic stop,’ and thus no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.”
     Justice Samuel Alito joined the Thomas dissent in full but wrote separately to complain about the majority’s “unnecessary, impractical, and arbitrary decision.”
     “Not only does the court reach out to decide a question not really presented by the facts in this case, but the court’s answer to that question is arbitrary,” he wrote. “The court refuses to address the real Fourth Amendment question: whether the stop was unreasonably prolonged. Instead, the court latches onto the fact that Officer Struble delivered the warning prior to the dog sniff and proclaims that the authority to detain based on a traffic stop ends when a citation or warning is handed over to the driver. The court thus holds that the Fourth Amendment was violated, not because of the length of the stop, but simply because of the sequence in which Officer Struble chose to perform his tasks.”
     Calling this finding “perverse,” Alito noted that Struble specifically chose the sequence he employed to protect “his own safety and possibly the safety of others.”
     “When occupants of a vehicle who know that their vehicle contains a large amount of illegal drugs see that a drug-sniffing dog has alerted for the presence of drugs, they will almost certainly realize that the police will then proceed to search the vehicle, discover the drugs, and make arrests,” this dissent states. “Thus, it is reasonable for an officer to believe that an alert will increase the risk that the occupants of the vehicle will attempt to flee or perhaps even attack the officer.”
     Alito emphasized Struble’s concern “that he was outnumbered at the scene.”
     “If he had chosen that riskier sequence of events, the dog sniff would have been completed before the point in time when, according to the court’s analysis, the authority to detain for the traffic stop ended,” the dissent states. “Thus, an action that would have been lawful had the officer made the unreasonable decision to risk his life became unlawful when the officer made the reasonable decision to wait a few minutes for backup. Officer Struble’s error – apparently – was following prudent procedures motivated by legitimate safety concerns. The court’s holding therefore makes no practical sense. And nothing in the Fourth Amendment, which speaks of reasonableness, compels this arbitrary line.” (Emphasis in original.)
     Since today’s decision will now ensure that officers now “learn the prescribed sequence of events even if they cannot fathom the reason for that requirement,” Alito noted that the decision “is unlikely to have any appreciable effect on the length of future traffic stops.”
     “I would love to be the proverbial fly on the wall when police instructors teach this rule to officers who make traffic stops,” the justice’s dissent concludes.
     Justice Anthony Kennedy joined all but one section of the Thomas dissent.
     He noted in a separate paragraph that this section addressed an aspect of the case that the Court of Appeals has not addressed in any detail.

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