Pubdate: Wed, 22 Apr 2015
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2015 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Jess Baravin


Justices continue on path of strengthening constitutional protections 
against `unreasonable search and seizure'

WASHINGTON-The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 on Tuesday police can't prolong a 
routine traffic stop to allow a drug-sniffing dog to search the vehicle 
unless they have a reasonable suspicion of uncovering contraband.

The case is the latest to see the justices reinvigorate constitutional 
protections against "unreasonable searches and seizures," following 
recent decisions that rejected warrantless cellphone searches and 
installation of GPS trackers.

Tuesday's ruling tightens the parameters police should follow when using 
drug-sniffing dogs during a traffic stop, building on a 2005 precedent 
allowing the drug searches while stressing such procedures become 
unlawful if a motorist is detained solely to conduct the search.

"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 Ginsburg wrote for 
the majority. She was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices 
Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The case came from Valley, Neb., where in March 2012 a K-9 officer, 
Morgan Struble, stopped a Mercury Mountaineer carrying two people after 
it briefly veered onto a highway shoulder.

It took Mr. Struble about 22 minutes to make his routine checks of the 
driver's license, auto registration and proof of insurance, pulling up 
no outstanding warrants or other reason to delay the vehicle. After 
giving the driver, Dennys Rodriguez, a warning ticket, Mr. Struble asked 
permission to walk his drug-sniffing dog, Floyd, around the vehicle.

When Mr. Rodriquez declined, Mr. Struble ordered him out of the car and 
had him wait until a backup officer arrived. On a walk around the 
Mountaineer, the dog led the officers to a bag of methamphetamine.

A federal magistrate judge found that Mr. Struble had nothing more than 
a "large hunch" to justify the search, but admitted the evidence anyway 
because the procedure imposed only a minimal delay on Mr. Rodriguez.

Federal district and appellate courts upheld that decision. The Supreme 
Court faulted lower courts.

"A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of 
that violation," Justice Ginsburg wrote. While the court has allowed 
police to take certain actions in a traffic stop that go beyond its 
narrow purpose, such as requiring motorists to exit their vehicles, 
those have been closely tied to officer safety or other practical needs, 
she said.

The decision returns the case to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of 
Appeals, in St. Louis, to consider whether Mr. Struble had a reasonable 
suspicion that justified use of a drug-sniffing dog.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined in part or whole by Justices 
Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito.

Twenty-nine minutes "is hardly out of the ordinary for a traffic stop by 
a single officer of a vehicle containing multiple occupants even when no 
dog sniff is involved," Justice Thomas wrote.

In 2013, the court ruled that police conducted an unlawful search when 
they brought a narcotics dog to the porch of a private home without a 

Police have won some recent Fourth Amendment cases, however. In 
December, the court unanimously upheld a search conducted after an 
officer stopped a car on the mistaken belief that it was unlawful to 
drive with a broken brake light. The justices found that to be a 
reasonable mistake.
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