U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Limits Police Authority During Traffic Stops

By FBI (http://www.fbi.gov/news/photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsA recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Rodriguez v. United States, establishes limits on police authority during traffic stops. The court ruled that an officer’s authority over the driver ends once the officer accomplishes the “mission” of the traffic stop, which in this specific case involved writing a warning ticket for a minor traffic violation. Anything that occurs after the “mission” is complete violates the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. Since many DWI cases begin with a traffic stop for a minor infraction, this ruling could have a significant impact. At the same time, it still allows police to conduct further investigations, such as field sobriety testing, if they can show probable cause to suspect DWI.

A police officer pulled the defendant over for driving on the shoulder of a highway. He questioned the defendant and his passenger, ran a criminal check on the defendant’s license, and issued a warning ticket. While he acknowledged that he had completed the purpose of the stop, he did not let the defendant go. Instead, he ordered the defendant and the passenger out of the vehicle and made two passes with a drug-sniffing dog. On the second pass, the dog alerted to something in the vehicle, which turned out to be methamphetamine.

The drug-sniff search prolonged the traffic stop for an additional seven or eight minutes after the officer wrote the ticket. The defendant moved to suppress the evidence from the search of his vehicle, arguing that the officer lacked probable cause. The trial court denied the motion, finding that, while the officer lacked probable cause to search for drugs, the seven- or eight-minute extension of the stop was a minimal intrusion on the defendant’s rights and was therefore permissible. The court of appeals affirmed this ruling.

In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court found in the defendant’s favor, vacated the appellate court’s order, and remanded the case. The court cited two prior cases that governed this situation. Its 1968 ruling in Terry v. Ohio allows police to stop and search a person based on reasonable suspicion of involvement in criminal activity, provided the stop is brief, and the search is directly related to the suspected offense. The court held in 2005 in Illinois v. Caballes that police may use a drug-sniffing dog during a traffic stop in some circumstances. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority in Rodriguez, held that the officer violated the defendant’s rights by prolonging the stop after he had finished writing the warning ticket, when the purpose of the stop was complete. The fact that he only prolonged the stop by a few minutes did not matter.

The ruling is important with regard to protecting people from unreasonable searches and seizures, but it still offers many ways for police to argue that a stop is lawful. If an officer can find probable cause to suspect DWI, extending a stop to continue investigating could be permitted. Justice Thomas, writing a dissent in Rodriguez, noted that the officer claimed that he detected an air freshener odor coming from the defendant’s vehicle that he often associated with drugs or other contraband. That fact could still come into play when the case is remanded, and similar types of evidence could be used in DWI cases.

If you have been charged with alleged DWI, you need the assistance of a knowledgeable and experienced DWI attorney. We have dedicated 100% of our practice at Levow & Associates to representing defendants in New Jersey DWI cases. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a member of our legal team, contact us today online or at (877) 975-3399.

More Blog Posts:

Motorist Settles Lawsuit Against City Involving Arrest for Alleged DWI, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, March 6, 2015

DWI Checkpoints Remain Legal in New Jersey, but Police Must Follow Strict Guidelines, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, March 3, 2015

Supreme Court Rules that Traffic Stop Was Lawful, Despite Police Officer’s Misunderstanding of Traffic Law, New Jersey DWI Attorney Blog, January 20, 2015

Photo credit: By FBI (http://www.fbi.gov/news/photos) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.