Supreme Court Rules That A Traffic Stop Ends When The 'Objective' Is 'Complete,' Rather Than Whenever The Officer Feels It Is

from the a-little-more-Fourth,-anyone? dept

Another small win for the Fourth Amendment, thanks to the US Supreme Court. With its ruling in the Rodriguez v. US case, law enforcement officers will have to work just a little bit harder to perform unconstitutional searches during traffic stops.

“A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation” – not more — and “authority for the seizure . . . ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are – or reasonably should have been—completed…” Traffic stops have to be reasonably short, and unless there is reasonable suspicion of some other crime, officers can’t use the stop as a subterfuge for extraneous investigation. Most specifically, says Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion for the Court, officers can’t prolong a traffic stop just to perform a dog-sniffing drug search.

The unanswered question is how long can a traffic stop last before it becomes “prolonged?” The bright line would appear to be that it becomes prolonged if extended past the point a citizen should feel free to go. For instance, if someone’s pulled over for speeding, the instant the officer issues a ticket or warning, the stop is over. Any searches performed past that point (including deploying drug-sniffing dogs) would be a violation of the Fourth Amendment if there’s no probable cause.

In Rodriguez’s case, he was pulled over and issued a ticket. This should have been the end of the encounter, but the officer went on a fishing expedition, hoping to have Rodriguez grant him permission to have a drug dog sniff his vehicle. Rodriguez refused but the officer detained him until another officer arrived and walked the dog around the vehicle anyway. It alerted and a search of the vehicle uncovered a bag of methamphetamines.

The DOJ argued that law enforcement should have the leeway to handle traffic stops in any fashion they see fit, including holding people without cause until they’ve exhausted their options (bringing in other officers, performing K-9 searches), even if they’ve already issued a citation for the offense that predicated the stop. Justice Sotomayor was completely unimpressed by this logic during oral arguments, pointing out that continued deference to law enforcement would turn the Fourth Amendment into a “useless piece of paper.”

This decision makes the Fourth Amendment only slightly less “useless.” A previous decision has already undermined a great deal of Fourth Amendment protections by giving law enforcement the permission to use nearly any reason imaginable to initiate a stop — even nonexistent laws. What this does is forbid law enforcement officers from prolonging stops past the point that they’ve achieved their original objective: the issuance of a ticket or warning (if for a traffic violation). This ruling should turn “Am I free to go?” into a drivers’ mantra.

Officers will often prolong stops by asking permission to do a variety of things, being very careful to phrase it as optional (which it is) while still implying that it probably isn’t (you don’t have anything to hide, right?). “Am I free to go?” can help cut through this clutter. But it probably won’t be enough and it definitely won’t work every time. In fact, this ruling may have helped restore some Fourth Amendment protections, but in doing so, the specifics create a roadmap for unconstitutional searches. Officers just need to explore their options before issuing a citation.

Have the dog there before you hand over the ticket and you get a sniff, no Constitution allowed. Don’t rush the ticket, because nobody knows how long it does, or should, take to complete the core mission. And if the dog happens to show before it’s done, boom, lawful.

Ask those Frisbee questions before you hand over the paperwork. Seek consent while you still have the driver’s license in hand. Smell the car for that “pungent” odor, peer knowingly for that furtive gesture, or stare carefully for those watery and lethargic eyes, before you hand over the papers.

So, we don’t have an answer on the question of how long is too long? What we do have is an endpoint. Everything beyond that is unconstitutional. So, there will be more pressure applied by fishing cops, because consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver. As long as their words say something their implications don’t, it’s all perfectly legal. The longer they can delay “completing” the “objective,” the more time they’ll have to explore their options. According to the Supreme Court, once that citation hits a person’s hands, they’re free to go. But that endpoint might be five minutes or two hours from the initiation of the stop.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Rules That A Traffic Stop Ends When The 'Objective' Is 'Complete,' Rather Than Whenever The Officer Feels It Is”

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54 Comments
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

This should have been the end of the encounter, but the officer went on a fishing expedition, hoping to have Rodriguez grant him permission to have a drug dog sniff his vehicle. Rodriguez refused but the officer detained him until another officer arrived and walked the dog around the vehicle anyway. It alerted and a search of the vehicle uncovered a bag of methamphetamines.

The term “fishing expedition” implies a certain element of chance, that you’re looking for “whatever bites”. But when the officer specifically was looking for drugs, and he ended up finding drugs, to me that suggests that he had a reasonable suspicion that was grounded in something objective…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

To me, a “fishing expedition” doesn’t exclude the notion that they’re fishing for something specific, like drugs. Rather, it’s when they’re conducting a search without any specific indication that the search is called for.

“to me that suggests that he had a reasonable suspicion that was grounded in something objective.”

If so, then surely he would have articulated the reasonable suspicion. To me, that he found something indicates that the cop got lucky.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

But if they had found nothing, there would have been no court case because there would have been no evidence to throw out.

Even if they could, how many people would bother to bring a lawsuit because an officer called a drug dog that found nothing? If they were delayed half an hour, and they get paid $50 per hour, are they going to file suit for $25?

And “reasonable suspicion” is not enough to perform a search. You need “probable cause” to do that.

Andy Koch says:

The opinion is a bit more nuanced. It states:

“Authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been— completed.”

“Reasonably should have been” will be something likely worked out in court on a case by case basis, but it certainly gives those exposed to fishing expedition cops something to lean on. If the police wait for someone else to arrive, stall in handing over your information, or otherwise hold up the process for no reason they will be setting themselves up for failure in the court room. Hopefully that will lead to less fishing in the future.

jilocasin (profile) says:

Next case... unlawfully 'extending stop'

That’s good to hear that the Supreme Court ruled that way (if you get a chance you should listen to the oral arguments).

This of course leads to the _next_ case. Unlawfully _extending_ a stop.

Drivers need to _not_consent_ to any requests to search _anything_. This needs to be followed by the newest mantra;
“Am I free to go?”

Possible future case;

Carlos stopped for not having his headlights on during the day (it’s not _actually_ an infraction, but that’s O.K. right?).

Officer Bob knows Carlos brings the cash from his family’s fleet of lunch vans to the bank every Thursday. Office Bob just _knows_ that it’s really _drug_money_ that’s being laundered by Carlos. Unfortunately for Officer Bob, Rusty, the department’s trusty drug sniffing dog (the one that can be counted upon ‘alert’ whenever it’s handler taps his left foot) has decided to chase after a hot dog wielding poodle upon arrival.

Officer Bob commences to; drop his ticket pad, break his pencil, stop to retie his shoes, complain that his vehicle’s computer has lost connection, squint at Carlos’ license and clean his glasses (never mind that they are non-prescription sunglasses) repeatedly. All the while frantically calling into his walkie talkie for updates on the status of good ‘ol Rusty.

Carlos repeatedly, and politely, asks if he’s free to go.

Office Bob tells Carlos that he’ll be free to go as soon as he completes giving Carlos a warning about his head lights. IF Carlos would consent to a simple little search of his vehicle, no? Hmm wouldn’t you know it, his pencil has run out of ink.

An hour later, Rusty and his handler shows up and would you believe he ‘alerts’ to Carlos’ car.

After Officer Bob finishes moving the cash box from Carlos’ trunk to _his_ trunk (obviously drug related as proven by Rusty ‘alerting’ to the box {on command}) Officer Bob writes Carlos out a warning for not having his headlights on during the day. He is now …free to go.

Carlos sues the town for their illegal seizure of his family businesses money. His lawyer sites “Rodriguez v. US”.

The district attorney argues that it’s all legal and above board as the _reason_for_the_stop_ namely giving Carlos a warning, wasn’t completed before the drug sniffing dog alerted, so it all completely legal.

Que up the next phase of this saga……

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Next case... unlawfully 'extending stop'

Unfortunately for Officer Bob, Rusty, the department’s trusty drug sniffing dog (the one that can be counted upon [to] ‘alert’ whenever [its] handler taps his left foot) …

I’m curious as to whether this phenomenon has ever shown up in court. It sounds a lot like urban legend, but there must be something in it (“where there’s smoke, …”). Have any police dog handlers been busted for training their dogs to alert on demand?

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Next case... unlawfully 'extending stop'

Have any police dog handlers been busted for training their dogs to alert on demand?

“Busted”? By whom? What world do you live in?

I was kind of hoping that the courts and judges might have stumbled over the stinky and thought to question whether shenanigans might be taking place. In theory, that’s their job.

Johnathan W Yother says:

Re: Next case... unlawfully 'extending stop'

And it doesn’t even have to be Carlos…. Cops don’t care, they just want to make arrests, because no matter what they imply, their pay raises and promotions depend on arrests made, which is a HUGE incentive to make as many arrests as possible, whether legitimate or not. I got pulled over for not using a turn signal leaving a parking lot, cop was about a 1/4 of a mile away, and it was literally impossible for him to even see my turn signals. My passenger ended being “dirty”, and I got a 10 year sentence because I didn’t frisk her beforehand and risk a sexual assault charge…

The One Free Man says:

Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

Perhaps the ultimate loophole is this one: “consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver.”

I, for one, think that a citizen can’t meaningfully consent to a search by a cop any more than a 14 year old girl can meaningfully consent to sex with a 40 year old man. Time to close that loophole and require probable cause for all police searches and seizures, period, no exceptions, not even if a citizen “consents”.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

I’m not a child, and I think that I should be able to consent to things like searches if I choose to. For example, if I suspect that someone may be inside my house, I might wish to consent to have cops come in and make sure nobody’s hiding in a closet.

But right now, it’s incredibly easy to “consent” to a search without realizing that you’ve consented to anything. That should never be able to happen. So I would be happy with tightening the rules a lot around this — perhaps have a standard “consent to search” form that has to be signed for it to count. That way, cops would have a harder time pulling off their trickery.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

Because being intimidated or even ‘just’ bamboozled into signing such a form by an authority figure during a stressful situation is totally impossible and would NOT make it so much harder in every conceivable way for the citizen to show that the search was unconstitutional.

Wow! You really thought this through! You’re smart!

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

Because being intimidated or even ‘just’ bamboozled into signing such a form by an authority figure during a stressful situation is totally impossible and would NOT make it so much harder in every conceivable way for the citizen to show that the search was unconstitutional.

Actually, I don’t think it would.

Duress is an established common law defense in contract law that would cause the form (contract) to be voided which would make it a search without consent and therefore unconstitutional.

sigalrm (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

“Actually, I don’t think it would.

Duress is an established common law defense in contract law that would cause the form (contract) to be voided which would make it a search without consent and therefore unconstitutional.”

And all you need to do to demonstrate it is to be sufficiently wealthy to pay the lawyers fees, and sufficiently patient to wait for months or years while it plays out in court.

Of course, most people in this type of situation aren’t sufficiently wealthy to make that happen….

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

Of course, most people in this type of situation aren’t sufficiently wealthy to make that happen….

Perhaps. But this type of situation is what groups like the ALCU live to fight for. And once precedent was set with a case like that, the police would be forced to revise their policies going forward.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

It wouldn’t eliminate the problem, but it would make it harder to pull off. Or, more correctly, would make it easier to challenge in court. Right now, it’s just the cop’s word that consent was given.

More importantly, though, is that it would make is explicit to the person signing that that are giving consent (whether or not that consent was coerced). That would fix the problem that I was talking about: that you can give consent for a search without knowing that you gave consent for a search.

The One Free Man says:

Re: Re: Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

That’s different. The perp in your example has no expectation of privacy hiding in someone else’s closet, so there’s no Fourth Amendment issue. The only effect of this change in your scenario would be that the cop couldn’t use anything else found in that closet to go after you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

“I might wish to consent to have cops come in and make sure nobody’s hiding in a closet.”

And while they are looking for that “monster” in your closet, they’ll be looking at what you have laying out on the coffee table, on your bookshelves, etc.

The police see everyone as a criminal, and they always look to find the law YOU broke. It is no longer “To Protect and Serve”, but “Arrest and Jail”.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

Yes, it’s true that once you’ve allowed someone inside, they can see everything there. If that someone is a cop, then they can bust you for whatever illegal thing they see. If I were concerned with that, it would probably factor into whether or not I gave consent.

But I don’t think the cops are generally quite as predatory as you paint here. If you’re a member of a subgroup that is unpopular with cops then things are a bit different, but cops really are generally decent people who are trying to do a hard job. They aren’t really out to get you.

However, it’s also true that cops have a strong tendency to look at random people as just crooks that haven’t been caught yet. When you deal with a certain kind of person day in and day out, you begin to think everyone is like that. And there are bad cops. In the end, cops are people with all that implies: there are angels and devils, but most are imperfectly decent.

The real problem is that cops need to be more decent than the rest of us. We give them tremendous power and authority, and they need to be held to a higher standard because of that.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

… cops really are generally decent people…

Bullshit.

No, he is correct. However, it’s apparently heavily dependent upon where you are and what you look like. I’ve never had anything but great interactions with cops all my life. They’ve always been protect and serve exemplars to me. However, I’m a male caucasian, and we don’t have whole PDs around here intent on padding the office budget with whatever they can confiscate from innocent citizens.

There’s lots of stories here that will chill you to the bone with respect to their interactions with minorities, however. Natives, blacks, and asians have essentially been outright murdered, and shady characters (prostitutes, drug dealers, …) can wait for years while the bodies pile up before anything is done about it. Most caucasians never see that side of it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Consent is the ultimate Fourth Amendment waiver

“Most caucasians never see that side of it.”

Yes, and that’s why I mentioned the but about being in a subgroup cops hate. As near as I can tell, there are regional variations about who the hated subgroups are. It’s not always race. Sometimes, it’s where you live or happen to be, or your socioeconomic status, etc.

DB (profile) says:

I agree that truly coerced consent is rarely present in a traffic stop.

If the police officer starts to hand back my license, but then withdraws it and asks to search my car, is my consent voluntary? What if a warning turns into a ticket when I refuse?

I’m not saying that consent is never present in police interactions. “A convict just escaped. May we search your shed?” But a traffic stop is rarely that type of situation. Even a positive interaction, “Just wanted to let you know your taillight is out..” quickly turns negative when followed by “may we search your car?”

As for claiming it’s not a fishing expedition because drugs were eventually found, that doesn’t necessarily follow. There are likely dozens of coerced searches that don’t turn up anything for every one that does. There isn’t motivation, or even standing, to complain about those.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If the police officer starts to hand back my license, but then withdraws it…

You are being detained. No reasonable person would feel free to leave and abandon their identification.

There’s fairly good precedent on that at the lower court level. Although, I am aware of at least one crazy lower court who saw things the other way—as a result, there’s some appellate precedent on that point, too.

… and asks to search my car, is my consent voluntary?

Being detained is just one factor that gets mixed into the totality of the circumstances. Mere acquiescence to authority is not consent.

It is the state’s burden to show that you voluntarily consented.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

You are being detained.

Btw, and fwiw, here’s an excerpt from a recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals, State v Anderson (April 21, 2015)

 . . . In determining whether a stop has de-escalated into a first-tier encounter, such that a reasonable person would have felt free to leave, “three important factors have been given particular scrutiny: (a) whether the driver’s documents have been returned to him; (b) whether the officer informed the driver that he was free to leave; and (c) whether the driver appreciated that the traffic stop had reached an endpoint.”. . . .

(Emphasis added.)

Not necessarily the best case to cite on this point (especially outside of Georgia!), but recent and handy.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“If the police officer starts to hand back my license, but then withdraws it and asks to search my car, is my consent voluntary?”

I think so, yes. You can still say no.

“What if a warning turns into a ticket when I refuse?”

Well, that would be petty on the part of the cop, but I don’t think it really changes much. A warning is a bit like a favor from a cop: you actually did something wrong, and the cop is giving you a pass on it. If refusing a search means that the cop is no longer willing to do you a favor, that strikes me as a dick move but not really very punitive.

If the cop was threatening to write a ticket for (or charge you with) something you didn’t do, however, that changes everything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

… is my consent voluntary?

I think so, yes.

As a judge, you have just committed reversible error.

The original poster has not provided enough information to reach the conclusion that his consent was voluntary in these circumstances. It is the state’s burden to show that the consent exception applies. When you lack details, the state has not met its burden.

Don’t feel too bad, a surprising number of judges have screwed this one up at suppression hearings. With a small amount of luck, it gets fixed on appeal.

Anonymous Coward says:

will the issue now not be how long is the officer/s allowed to keep a person detained or stopped before making the decision to issue a ticket? if the officer can fanny around while waiting for further officers to arrive with/without dogs, for example, and get a search carried out anyway, the person concerned is still being held, isn’t he/she because the writing of the ticket hasn’t happened and probably wont until the very last minute? the Court should have been more specific in the ruling but as is usual, they do just enough to make life a little bit more uncertain for both sides of the fence. not good, really!

Anonymous Coward says:

“Officers just need to explore their options before issuing a citation.”

No, the opinion expressly disclaims this:
“An officer, in other words, may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop. But contrary to JUSTICE ALITO’s suggestion, post, at 4, n. 2, he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.” (p. 6)
“The critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, as JUSTICE ALITO supposes, post at 2–4, but whether conducting the sniff ‘prolongs’, i.e., adds time to ‘the stop’, supra at 6.” (p. 8)

Now, as a practical matter, it may be that the cop will just wait for backup while pretending to still be checking your information. That’s still illegal, but he’s unlikely to get caught.

Anonymous Coward says:

Worse that useless

“Justice Sotomayor was completely unimpressed by this logic during oral arguments, pointing out that continued deference to law enforcement would turn the Fourth Amendment into a “useless piece of paper.”

It’s worse than useless, it’s dangerous. How long are we going to allow some crappy old piece of paper to stand in the way of protecting our nation?

charles brennen says:

pretexual stop

It seems no one is arguing the most valid point when it comes to pretexual stop and 4th ammendment issues;wich is the officer intent shown by his actions.when a officer pulls over a car for a traffic violation the issuance of a ticket or warning should be the only objective until that objective is finish.However i notice a lot of officers are stopping cars for traffic violations and forgetting to issue the ticket because they went straight to investigative search and forgot the citation(the bases for the stop).The officers intent is shown in his actions of forgetting to issue the citation/warning period.In the case against me i was stopped by an officer claiming i rolled past the stop bar into pedestrian crossing.However on the video you notice the officer never even attempted to issue a citation(the bases for the stop) and proceeded to ask me investigative questions about any guns or drugs in my vehicle.The officer asked me to step out of the vehicle and ask if he could search me.i allowed the officer to do a pat down for weapons but remove no items from my pocket;wich the officer complied.proving the officer did not have sufficent probable cause to search me or my vehicle.Because had he had sufficent probable cause he would not have needed my permission to search me or my vehicle.When i asked the officer to stop he did.Further proving the officer had no sufficent probable cause and was clearly fishing.During the entire duration of the stop and my eventual arrest for marijuana(double bagged in center consoul of car,with the consoul closed,no smoked or burned smell of marijuana as stated by officers during depositions)I was never issued a citation or warning for the traffic violation.The officer realizing his mistake came back to the county jail 10 days later and placed the unsigned citation in my jail property.The officer even back-dated the citation to the date of the arrest.The back dating of the citation and the officers failure to issue the citation before asking investigative questions.Proves the officers intent was to use the minor traffic violation to investigate for a crime.The officer had assistance withing the first 2min of stopping me.Further proving the officer had sufficent time and security of the situation to focus on his initial bases for the stop(the traffic violation).By having assistance and never attempting to issue the citation or warning.The officers intent is clear by his actions;wich the courts must take into consideration being that the officers actions were so blatant.To deny the officers actions is to say the bases for the stop dosent matter.However without sufficent bases/probable cause of any sort;officers would be able to pull over anyone at anytime they feel like.Actions have always spoken louder than words!!

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