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Supreme Court: Wrong to make suspect sit, stay waiting for drug dogs

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Police can’t make a person at a traffic stop “sit” and “stay” while waiting for K-9 drug sniffing dogs to get on the scene, according to the Supreme Court this week. Well, they didn’t say it in those exact words, but, look, a puppy!

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court held that without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing on the part of a suspect, extending a traffic stop in order to wait for a drug dog to get on the scene violates the Constitution’s shield against “unreasonable searches and seizures” contained in the Fourth Amendment.

Attorney Mark Coleman, a defense lawyer with the Law Offices of Nuttall & Coleman, says that this “is an important decision. It establishes a ‘Bright Line’ rule that the police cannot cross.”

This decision in particular has the potential to affect law enforcement in Fresno and in surrounding cities.

“This case will have a major impact on the way stops are made in the Central Valley. Many of the stops here involve the use of drug dogs,” Coleman says.

What does the Supreme Court’s ruling mean?

Courts have long held that a seizure is justified only by a police-observed traffic violation. Once police address these violations, fulfilling their “mission” for the stop, their authority to hold someone ends.

Typically, a police officer’s “mission” includes determining whether the person he or she stopped should be issued a ticket. As a part of this, the officer routinely checks the driver’s license and proof of insurance, whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and the automobile’s registration. Trouble with the Fourth Amendment comes up when a police officer starts operating outside the boundaries of these tasks, turning the stop into an unlawful search or seizure.

The seizure, or holding of the person, becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission. And according to the Supreme Court, the wait for drug dogs, even a seven or eight minute wait, is unreasonable, because it’s not part of the mission script.

“This court holds that you can only hold the driver for the time it takes to write the ticket, not the time it takes to get the dog there,” Coleman says.

And it doesn’t matter whether the police officer completes this mission in record time. The Supreme Court was unconvinced by the government’s argument that completing the traffic stop quickly gives the police officer extra time to investigate further.

How could the Supreme Court’s decision affect me?

Coleman says that this Supreme Court decision has the potential to keep police officers from using the unfair targeting of a driver as an excuse to search for drugs.

“Typically, drug agents will direct a traffic officer to stop a driver on a ‘hunch’ he is carrying drugs. They will try to find a de-minimis violation to justify the stop,” Coleman says.

A de-minimis violation refers to a minor traffic violation, like a broken taillight or following another vehicle too closely.

After the police officer “observes” this violation, they would call for the dog, which might take half an hour to get to the scene. Coleman says that a dog sniff is not a search, but once the dog signals that there could be something in the vehicle, that signal could give the authorities the justification they need to search a car.

Read the opinion: Supreme Court Opinion Rodriguez v. United States

Image via Huffington Post