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Right to be Free From Unreasonable Seizures Is Protected by U.S. Supreme Court

The story behind the lawsuit that eventually went before the U.S. Supreme Court began when police pulled a driver over for apparently driving erratically. When asked about his driving, the man said he had hit a pothole, and it jerked the vehicle over, so he had been righting the trajectory of the car.

The officer asked the driver for his documentation — driver’s license, insurance, registration — and then asked the driver to come back to the cruiser with him. The driver declined. The officer questioned the passenger, called for backup, finished issuing tickets and asked the driver if he would submit to a dog sniff.

The driver and other car occupants objected. The dog later found methamphetamine. The Supreme Court indicated that keeping the vehicle beyond the time needed to wrap up the traffic matter constituted an unlawful seizure.

In Rodriguez v. United States, (No. 13-9972), the U.S. Supreme Court Justices handed down a ruling stating that once a “routine” traffic stop is completed, law enforcement cannot, unless there is “reasonable” suspicion, hold a driver and/or passenger to have a dog sniff their persons or property for illegal drugs. The main reasoning behind the Justices’ decision was that authority for a seizure or stop ends when all tasks related to a traffic violation are, or should have been, completed.

The court said: “A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation” — no more — and “authority for the seizure…ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.” Detaining a vehicle to bring in a drug-sniffing dog to search for drugs is definitely not allowed under this ruling.

The Rodriguez v. United States, (No. 13-9972) decision is a bit at odds with Illinois v. Caballes. The latter has been understood to allow a dog to sniff, if that sniff takes place during the traffic stop window of time. Under the Rodriguez decision, a sniff would be forbidden if it unnecessarily prolongs the traffic time.

In either instance, as in many others, it is the circumstances of the situation that dictate the possible outcomes. Until further lawsuits are filed, dog sniff and traffic stop law remains hazy. Something that was not dealt with in this case was whether or not there was reasonable suspicion of a further crime, which would have permitted law enforcement to detain the driver. Another issue in this cases that may warrent further examination is defining a dog sniff as a “search.”

Thomas C .Grajek is a criminal defense lawyer in Tampa, Lakeland, and Polk County Florida. To contact a Lakeland criminal defense lawyer or to learn more, visit or call 863-688-4606.

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