SCOTUS Rules Motorists Can't Be Held for K-9 Searches, and That's a Good Thing


It’s a good time to be a drug dog trainer because business is about to be good (plus the fact that you get to work with “real drugs,” but that’s a different perk).  The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that police can’t hold motorists in traffic stops for K-9 searches.

The Court issued a seemingly simple rule today in Rodriguez v. United States:  “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.”

Our liberal friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also happens to be a strong advocate of limiting government power in criminal matters, wrote the opinion, and Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas wrote separate dissents.

Justice Ginsburg wrote that

a traffic stop “can become unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the [traffic stop] mission.”  In this case, because Officer Struble agreed that he had “got[ten] all the reasons for the stop out of the way” before conducting the dog sniff, the dog sniff violated Caballes’s Fourth Amendment rule.   Justice Thomas’s dissent says that “the majority accomplishes today what the Caballes dissent could not.”  But this is a shade too broad.  Caballes allows a dog sniff if conducted during a reasonable traffic stop time; today’s decision forbids it if it unnecessarily prolongs that time.

What does this mean to the guy on the interstate who’s pulled over for speeding, or for tinted windows, or a broken taillight?  Being neither an attorney nor a law enforcement officer, but having a vested interest as a “guy on the interstate,” I sought an answer.

I spoke to my friend, a former DA and magistrate judge, who agreed with the decision.  He told me it doesn’t really affect cops’ ability to hold suspects and conduct valid searches.  It does limit the time for the officer to get the drug dog to your car, however.

If you are being stopped for a routine traffic violation, the officer can no longer let you sweat until you break, if he suspects you’re a drug mule.  And drug interdiction squads are like hammers:  everyone’s a nail.  If it weren’t for the fact that drug dogs behave like toddlers and lose interest after a certain number of car sniffs in a row, they would do the dog sniff on every vehicle.

But they didn’t need to do that before now—just the threat of having the dog come out, and the 20 minute wait after the officer asks you to consent to search (and you decline) tends to put the motorist in a bad position.  On this, I think SCOTUS got it right.  Leverage should be in the hands of the citizen, and the officer should have what’s called “ARS” to continue to detain a suspect.

ARS is “articulable reasonable suspiciion,” which courts hold to be “events leading up to the brief stop and a decide whether these facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to reasonable suspicion.”  Technically, an officer should have ARS to call the drug dog, or even ask your permission to search the vehicle, but they rarely tell you.  If you ask “what’s your ARS?” you’re now a “problem” and “mouthing off” to some (not all) officers.

Now an officer can’t stand on the side of the road and give you the devil’s choice of consenting to your vehicle being searched (which can take as long as the officer wants to stretch it out), or waiting for a K-9 unit to arrive while you cool your heels.

How does this affect the drug dog training business?  According to my friend, the police will simply order up more drug dogs and K-9 units.  If Officer Paul Blart decides you deserve a good sniffing, there needs to be a unit within a few minutes drive, with a dog who is still motivated and effective.  That means more dogs and more handlers.

At about $6,000 a pop, it’s good business.  And it pays for itself with seizures and forfeitures, so if you’ve got some extra money, you might want to find a business partner in the dog training business, and make yourself a good return.

Tell’em Justice Ginsburg sent you.

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