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SCOTUS decides important case regarding vehicle searches, drug-sniffing dogs — II

Last week, we started discussing a very important decision recently handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States in Rodriguez v. U.S., a case examining the extent to which law enforcement officials can use drug-sniffing dogs during otherwise routine traffic stops.

In today’s post, we’ll continue this discussion, examining what SCOTUS ultimately decided and its rationale.

In a 6-3 decision, the court reversed the decision of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, holding that it was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment for the original traffic stop of the defendant to have been extended in order to conduct a search by the drug-sniffing dog.

Specifically, the opinion, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, states that while it’s certainly permissible under the U.S. Constitution for law enforcement officials to stop and detain people for speeding or other traffic violations, the authority for this seizure extends only to the time “reasonably required to address the traffic violation” and does not cover unrelated drug investigations.

“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 and attend to related safety concerns,” reads the opinion. “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are–and reasonably should have been–completed.”

According to experts, the decision, which applies to both state and federal law enforcement officials, will help curb the incidence of pretextual traffic stops, meaning those scenarios where law enforcement officials pull over motorists for the slightest traffic violations as an excuse to conduct more widespread searches for drugs that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform.  

It is worth noting that this is the second time in two years that SCOTUS has used the Fourth Amendment to limit the scope of police searches.

In a prior case, the court held that law enforcement violated a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment when they conducted searches using drug-sniffing dogs around the front doors of private homes absent a search warrant.

Stay tuned for further updates on important SCOTUS decisions related to criminal defense matters.

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