In my last piece, I provided some basic warnings about traffic stops and other encounters with law enforcement. Now we have an update, hot off the bench of the nation’s highest court. In late April of 2015, the US Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Rodriguez v. United States that will affect many traffic stops. Although I am not under the impression that the police in Maine often use drug-sniffing dogs, it is a widespread practice elsewhere. Basically, if a cop who has stopped a motorist suspects the presence of illegal drugs in the vehicle, he or she may call for another cop to bring a specially-trained dog to locate the drugs. As an American Bar Association article notes, a 2005 decision had meant that the practice did not violate the US Constitution. That is no longer true.
What does this mean for the layperson? First, you should know that a primary means of enforcing certain procedural and substantive protections in the Constitution—such as the right to counsel during criminal prosecution or the right to confront accusers—is through a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence. Such motions often are based on the argument that a defendant’s constitutional rights have been violated and, therefore, certain pieces of evidence or witnesses should not be allowed to be part of the prosecution’s case. Otherwise, law enforcement officials and prosecutors would have little or no incentive to heed the right against self-incrimination, the presumption of innocence, and so on. Then, such constitutional rights would be virtually worthless. The right against unreasonable searches and seizures, laid out in the Fourth Amendment, is a common basis for motions to suppress. In simplistic terms, if someone’s right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is violated, evidence that is the “fruit” of the violation is inadmissible in a criminal court case.
Second, you should keep in mind that an officer on patrol does not need a warrant to stop a motorist when he or she witnesses, for instance a stop-sign violation. The traffic stop, though, is supposed to be brief and limited in nature—not an extended attempt to catch a possible criminal in the act based on no more than a hunch (or a racist profile)—so that the officer can give the driver a citation or warning. There is, in theory, a kind of trade here: the police can pull over motorists and write simple tickets without an arrest or search warrant, and motorists do not have to endure outrageous detentions.
Law enforcement officials across the country are now on notice that they cannot stop vehicles for routine traffic violations and then compel their drivers to submit to a long wait while, on the basis of sheer speculation, not reasonable suspicion, a special search with a dog commences. The Court stated its position as follows: “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.” The nation’s highest court in recent years has veered, from case to case, between strengthening and weakening the people’s protections from law enforcement agencies. The most recent decision, of course, enhances our freedom from unreasonable governmental interference in our daily lives.