In an enormous decision important for the Black community, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled that it is a constitutional violation for police to prolong a traffic stop to try to find evidence of illegal activity if it means the stop will take longer than the time necessary to complete the issuing of a routine traffic ticket.
The court’s 6-3 decision means that police who are tempted to go on fishing expeditions when they pull over Black drivers will be severely restricted by time parameters, and any evidence they gather during a prolonged search could be inadmissible in court. Once police pull over a motoris, they cannot detain him without reasonable suspicion that he has done something worse than violate a traffic law.
“We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg wrote for the majority. “A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, ‘become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission’ of issuing a ticket for the violation.”
Since statistics in almost every jurisdiction across the country indicate that Black drivers are much more likely to be stopped than white drivers—what has popularly become known as “driving while Black”—the court’s ruling provides greater protections for Black drivers when they haven’t obviously broken any laws. The decision is especially pertinent in drug cases, which are by far the vast majority of situations where police try to extend the encounter with drivers long enough to ascertain whether there might be any drugs in the car.
Drug possession stemming from a traffic stop is one of the most common forms of arrests in the nation. According to statistics provided by the ACLU, nearly 900,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010—which comes out to one arrest every 37 seconds.
Though studies have shown that Black people and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, the ACLU found that Blacks in 2010 were about four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession—and an astounding eight times more likely in Washington, DC.
These racial disparities largely begin at the traffic stop, where police use every means at their disposal to determine whether Black drivers are in possession of illegal drugs. But the Supreme Court yesterday just made that part of their job more difficult.
The case, called Rodriguez v. United States, stemmed from a traffic stop that occurred in Nebraska in March 2012, when police officer Morgan Struble observed driver Dennys Rodriguez swerve onto the shoulder of a state highway shortly after midnight, then jerk the car back onto the road. Struble, a K-9 officer with the Valley Police Department, pulled Rodriguez over and asked him why he drove onto the shoulder. Rodriguez responded that he had swerved to avoid a pothole. Struble then gathered Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, and asked Rodriguez to accompany him to the patrol car. Rodriguez asked if he was required to do so, and Struble answered that he was not. Rodriguez decided to wait in his own vehicle.
After he had completed a records check on Rodriguez and the passenger in the car, a man named Scott Pollman, Struble began writing a warning ticket for Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder of the road. After he gave Rodriguez the written warning, the officer asked for permission to walk his dog around Rodriguez’s vehicle. Rodriguez said no. Struble then instructed Rodriguez to turn off the ignition, exit the vehicle, and stand in front of the patrol car to wait for a second officer to arrive. Rodriguez complied.
Nearly a half hour after Rodriguez had first been pulled over, a deputy sheriff arrived. Struble got his dog, who was named Floyd, and led him twice around the vehicle. The second time around, the dog detected the presence of drugs—about seven or eight minutes after Struble handed him the written warning. A search of the vehicle revealed a large bag of methamphetamine. Rodriguez was indicted on one count of possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine. He tried to get the evidence suppressed, but a judge denied the motion. So Rodriguez took a plea and was sentenced to five years in prison.
But the Supreme Court decision yesterday ruled that the evidence was inadmissible and should have been suppressed.
“Like a Terry stop, the tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’—to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop,” Ginzburg wrote. “Because addressing the infraction is the purpose of the stop, it may ‘last no longer than is necessary to effectuate th[at] purpose.’ Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed…An officer, in other words, may conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop. But contrary to Justice Alito’s suggestion, he may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.”
The court majority ruled that bringing in a sniffing dog is not an ordinary action during a traffic stop, but rather is an extra measure intended to detect criminal activity—and is therefore illegal if the officer has no evidence that criminal activity is afoot.
This majority ruling didn’t sit well at all with Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the dissension, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy. Rather incredibly, Thomas wrote that because there was a strong scent of air freshener in the car and the passenger in the car appeared nervous, the officer had enough reasonable suspicion to believe that the driver was trying to hide the presence of drugs.
The views of the court majority on police overreach were summarized by Justice Sonia Sotomayor during the January 2015 oral argument in the case.
“We can’t keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement,” Sotomayor said. “Particularly when this stop is not incidental to the purpose of the stop. It’s purely to help the police get more criminals, yes. But then the Fourth Amendment becomes a useless piece of paper.”