SCOTUS confirms that traffic stops must be concluded in a reasonable timeframe, and may not be prolonged without an independent lawful basis to do so
On April 21, 2015, the United States Supreme Court resolved a federal circuit court split by ruling 6-3 that traffic stops must be concluded in a reasonable timeframe (already settled Supreme Court caselaw), and may not be prolonged without an independent lawful basis to do so (which was the source of the circuit court split). Rodriguez v. U.S., ___ U.S. ___ (April 21, 2015).
On the one hand, Rodriguez is a good decision for nixing the concept that even a brief police detention is allowed — in Rodriguez’s case for a drug dog sniff of the exterior of his car, which led to the discovery of a large quantity of methamphetamine — once a traffic violation investigation is concluded and the traffic tickets or written warning issued within a reasonable amount of time, unless the police have independent reasonable articulable suspicion or probable cause to continue detaining the driver beyond the conclusion of the traffic violation stop. On the other hand, Rodriguez continues to allow the all-too-common police charade of stopping a car under the pretext of a minor traffic violation, with the real intent to fish for such more serious offenses as possession of contraband, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or having an open arrest warrant for a jailable criminal charge. Whren et al. v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). Rodriguez also greenlights the common police practice of extending a traffic stop at the front end by asking at least some questions about the driver’s itinerary and whether the vehicle or its occupants have contraband or are otherwise recently or currently in violation of the criminal law.
The vote count in Rodriguez is notable in that Chief Justice Roberts joins the expected majority of Justices Ginsburg (Rodriguez’s author), Scalia, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, and that frequent swingvoter Justice Kennedy joins the remaining two and expected dissenting justices Thomas and Alito.
By allowing pretextual traffic stops at all, the Supreme Court is unintentionally encouraging police to prevaricate and exaggerate about the reasons for stopping cars where police actually want to fish for jailable offenses. Allowing pretextual stops also encourages police to draw fouls that will lead to minor automobile moving violations. Have you ever wondered why police sometimes tailgate your car? Won’t that draw the foul of your speeding beyond the speed limit or swerving sharply to avoid being hit by the tailgating cop or simply to allow the cop room to pass, to give the cop a reason for stopping you for a moving violation? Of course, if a police officer follows a car long enough, the pursued car eventually will stop at its destination or run out of gas, giving the police officer a chance to have a so-called consensual encounter after the driver exits the car.
Police are a necessary evil to serve public safety, and not to make ours the police state that it is, with a Fourth Amendment that is too watered down. Rodriguez is at least cause for celebration with the Supreme Court’s refusal to totally eviscerate the Fourth Amendment. Come November 2016, your vote for president will help decide whether we will have a president more likely to appoint judges who apply the Bill of Rights, or who water it down.