Guest Blog: Leslie Shoebotham, “I’m Going To Let You Off With Just a Warning . . . and a Canine Sniff!” Preview of Rodriguez v. United States

The Supreme Court will hear oral argument on Wednesday in Rodriguez v. United States, a case that asks whether the Fourth Amendment is violated when police perform a canine drug-detection sniff after the completion of a traffic stop—i.e., after the traffic ticket has been issued. In briefs filed with the Supreme Court, Rodriguez asserts that because the Fourth Amendment bars any period of suspicionless detention, even a “de minimis” extension of a completed traffic stop must be supported by reasonable suspicion of other criminal activity. Rodriguez seeks a “bright-line rule” from the Court prohibiting such suspicionless expansions of traffic stops, a ruling that would reverse his conviction since, Rodriguez asserts, the contraband found in his vehicle was uncovered during a period of illegal detention and should therefore be suppressed under the Exclusionary Rule.

The Traffic Stop: A Sniff Before You Can Go

This case arose from a traffic stop that occurred just after midnight on Highway 275 outside the small community of Valley, Nebraska. A local patrol officer, upon following Rodriguez’s vehicle, observed the vehicle to briefly veer off the highway onto the shoulder of the road and then return to the traffic lane. Because Nebraska law prohibits both driving on highway shoulders as well as the failure to maintain a lane, the officer initiated a traffic stop of Rodriguez’s vehicle. The traffic stop occurred at 12:06 a.m. Although the officer involved was a K-9 handler—who had his drug-detection dog with him in the patrol car at the time of the stop—the officer was working alone that evening without a human partner.

After completing a records check on both the driver (Mr. Rodriguez) and the vehicle’s passenger and, additionally, questioning the two men as to their travel plans, the officer issued a written warning ticket to Rodriguez for the traffic violation at 12:27 or 12:28 a.m. Just before issuing the warning ticket, the officer radioed in a request for backup. After issuing the warning ticket to Rodriguez, the officer asked for permission to conduct a canine sniff of the exterior of Rodriguez’s vehicle. Rodriguez declined. At 12:33 a.m., a backup officer arrived. Soon thereafter, the canine sniff was performed and the detection dog alerted to the presence of drugs in Rodriguez’s vehicle. From the time the officer issued the warning ticket to Rodriguez and the detection dog’s alert, about seven to eight minutes had elapsed. Based on the canine alert, a warrantless search of Rodriguez’s vehicle ensued and a bag of methamphetamine was found inside the vehicle.

The Suppression Arguments: No Suspicion, No Seizure or No Problem?

Rodriguez moved to suppress the drugs found in his vehicle arguing that, at the time the canine sniff was performed, he had been seized without reasonable suspicion in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Because his post-ticket detention was not supported by reasonable suspicion and obtaining the canine alert that provided a basis to search his vehicle prolonged the length of his detention by a measurable amount of time, Rodriguez argued that the detention was an unreasonable seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The government argued that Rodriguez’s traffic stop, which was initially supported by the traffic violation, had not been unreasonably prolonged and that, in any event, reasonable suspicion existed to support the traffic stop’s extension. To establish reasonable suspicion, the government pointed to: (1) an “overwhelming” odor of air freshener that the officer detected emanating from Rodriguez’s vehicle; (2) the vehicle’s passenger was “unusually nervous”; (3) Rodriguez declined to sit in the squad car while the ticket was written—after being told that he was not required to do so; and (4) the officer’s belief that the two men’s travel plans were unusual because they had driven a four-hour round trip to view a car they were thinking about buying without having first seen photos of the car.

The magistrate judge denied the suppression motion, finding first that the traffic stop of Rodriguez’s vehicle was objectively reasonable because the officer had probable cause to believe that a traffic violation had occurred. On the question of whether the Fourth Amendment was violated by extending the traffic stop to perform the canine sniff, the magistrate found that the extension of time had been “de minimis” and was therefore of no constitutional significance. On the reasonable suspicion issue, the magistrate found that reasonable suspicion to extend the traffic stop was lacking; he characterized the patrol officer as having no more than a “big hunch” that Rodriguez had drugs in his vehicle.

Although the district court adopted the magistrate’s findings and recommendations on the suppression issue in their entirety, the court issued an opinion that omitted any conclusions (whether by the magistrate or the district court) regarding the reasonable suspicion issue—i.e., whether the patrol officer’s “hunch” that Rodriguez was transporting drugs in his vehicle amounted to reasonable suspicion. Instead, the district court adopted the magistrate’s recommendation to deny Rodriguez’s suppression motion because the traffic stop was extended for only a de minimis amount of time—consistent with other Eighth Circuit cases that upheld extensions of completed traffic stops by ten minutes or less. Further, the district court noted that the officer’s decision to wait for backup before conducting the canine sniff was a reasonable, safety-based decision.

The Eighth Circuit also affirmed, concluding that the seven- to eight-minute delay in performing the canine sniff was “a de minimis intrusion on Rodriguez’s personal liberty.” Because the Eighth Circuit determined that Rodriguez’s detention was not unreasonably prolonged, that court expressly declined to consider the separate issue of whether reasonable suspicion existed to continue Rodriguez’s detention to investigate whether Rodriguez was transporting contraband in his vehicle.

Argument Preview: Bright-Line Rule or Pragmatic Flexibility

At oral argument, the reasonable suspicion issue is almost certain to be a major distraction from reaching the underlying legal question of suspicionless extensions of traffic stops. If reasonable suspicion existed, then Rodriguez’s post-ticket detention was not an unreasonable seizure; certiorari in the case, therefore, would seemingly have been improvidently granted. Therefore, the reasonable suspicion argument is likely to take center stage at the outset of Wednesday’s oral argument. With that in mind, the Rodriguez brief’s notation that the magistrate had apparently misspelled the term “de minimis” (see “[sic]”, Pet’r’s Br., at 7) was perhaps an unhelpful swipe at the very person whose findings Rodriguez also needs to convince the Court were adopted by the district court and are entitled to a deferential review for clear error.

Upon reaching the merits, Rodriguez will argue for a bright-line rule that requires police to have reasonable suspicion to extend a traffic stop to investigate other criminal activity. Although a canine alert provided the basis to search Rodriguez’s vehicle, Rodriguez mounts no serious challenge to Court precedent that a canine sniff of a vehicle is not a “search” for Fourth Amendment purposes and therefore reasonable suspicion to support a sniff is not required. Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407–08 (2005). Instead, the key battleground will turn on whether it is constitutionally permissible to extend the traffic stop to make possible a canine sniff.

Here, both sides rely on Caballes but emphasize different language from the opinion to bolster their arguments. Rodriguez focuses on Caballes’ emphasis that a canine sniff of a vehicle must not be performed while an individual is being “unlawfully detained.” The United States, on the other hand, relies on Caballes’ observation that the officers there had not engaged in any foot dragging in conducting the traffic stop—i.e., no slowing down of the ordinary ticketing process to accommodate performing the canine sniff. Accordingly, the United States emphasizes Caballes’ language cautioning against “unreasonably prolong[ing]” a traffic stop.

Rodriguez’s best argument is a legal argument based primarily on City of Indianapolis v. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000). Edmond involved a Fourth Amendment challenge to the use of traffic checkpoints—traffic stops that made it possible for police to perform suspicionless canine sniffs of the stopped vehicles to look for illegal drugs. Even though the seizures in Edmond were brief, the Court issued a bright-line rejection of the practice; concluding that suspicionless traffic stops were unreasonable seizures under the Fourth Amendment when the seizure was supported by no more than a general interest in detecting crime. Rodriguez argues for a similar bright-line rejection of the suspicionless seizure in his case, a seizure that arose after the completion of the traffic stop.

The United States uses Caballes’ “unreasonably prolong[]” language to make its best argument, an argument that is pragmatic in nature: Regardless of whether the canine sniff is performed prior to a ticket’s issuance or afterward, the key inquiry should be on the overall length of the traffic stop and whether the officer proceeded with reasonable diligence in performing the tasks associated with the traffic stop. In making its totality-of-the-circumstances argument, the United States emphasizes the importance of not micromanaging reasonable law enforcement decisionmaking as well as arguing the artificiality of Rodriguez’s proposed bright-line rule. It is an argument that may well resonate with the Court.


Photo Credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Maebel Tinoko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons