Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rodriguez v. United States: De Minimis Car Searches

Rodriguez v. United States
Docket Number: 13-9972

Argument Heard: TBD

The Supreme Court has previously held that, during an otherwise lawful traffic stop, asking a driver to exit a vehicle, conducting a drug sniff with a trained canine, or asking a few off-topic questions are "de minimis" intrusions on personal liberty that do not require reasonable suspicion of criminal activity in order to comport with the Fourth Amendment.[1]  This case poses the question of whether the same rule applies after the conclusion of the traffic stop, so that an officer may extend the already-completed stop for a canine sniff without reasonable suspicion or other lawful justification.

Petitioner Denny Rodriguez was convicted of one count of possessing with intent to distribute fifty grams or more of a mixture of a substance containing methamphetamines.  Rodriguez was driving with his passenger Scott Pollman on a highway in Nebraska at around midnight when he abruptly steered from the shoulder of the highway back into the right lane.  Officer Morgan Struble of the Valley Police Department in Nebraska witnessed Rodriguez’s maneuver and initiated a traffic stop to investigate the occurrence.  Struble pulled Rodriguez over at 12:06 A.M.

While approaching Rodriguez’s vehicle, Struble took note of the strong smell of air freshener emanating from Rodriguez’s car.  Struble’s experience as a law enforcement officer gave him suspicion that the use of the air freshener was being used to hide the odor of drugs inside the car.  In addition to the tremendous smell, Struble noticed Pollman never made eye contact with Struble, kept his hat low over his eyes, and constantly stared out of the front windshield.  Immediately after running a background check on Rodriguez, Struble asked where Rodriguez and Pollman were coming from so late at night.  Pollman responded that they had traveled to see a car on sale in a town four hours from Omaha;  however, they had not seen pictures of the car, nor did the car have insurance according to Pollman, thus he decided against purchasing the car.  Struble believed the story suspicious but did not investigate further.

Struble returned to his car to do a quick background check on Pollman and additionally requested a backup officer to assist him as a safety precaution.  At approximately 12:27 A.M. Struble gave Rodriguez a written warning and asked to walk his drug sniffing canine around Rodriguez’s car.  Rodriguez promptly refused and Struble directed that he step out of the vehicle.   After the second patrol officer arrived approximately seven minutes after Struble issued Rodriguez’s warning, Struble walked his dog around Rodriguez’s car;  the dog announced the presence of drugs after only twenty seconds.  Struble then searched the car and found a big bag containing methamphetamines.

The District Court for the District of Nebraska indicted Rodriguez, found that Struble did not subject Rodriguez to an extended search of his car.  The court held that Struble acted reasonably in waiting for a second officer to arrive in order to ensure Struble’s safety and that the actual search of the car after the issuance of the warning was a de minimis search.  The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision contending that the search was extended for a short period of time only because Struble was concerned about his safety.  The use of the dog after issuance of the warning was also minimally intrusive and affirmed.

Rodriguez argues that the length of time he was forced to wait after being issued his warning was unlawful and violated his Fourth Amendment rights.  Rodriguez distinguishes his case from Illinois v. Caballes because in Caballes the drug sniffing dog was deployed during the writing of the citation and thus under the umbrella of the actual stop.  Here Struble conducted his drug sniffing dog search after issuing Rodriguez his written warning, a point in time where an individual is lawfully allowed to leave the scene of the traffic stop and that any officer holding him back from doing so is unlawfully prolonging a stop.

The Government posits that because Struble was alone at night, faced with two individuals acting suspiciously, and fearful of any sort of attack, he was justified in prolonging the stop seven to eight minutes to ensure backup arrived.  The Government uses United States v. Alexander, an Eighth Circuit case, to demonstrate that a search occurring four minutes after a stop was deemed lawful and so minimally intrusive it did not violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights.  The Government also uses Terry v. Ohio to justify the “patdown” of the car because Struble’s heightened suspicion that “criminal activity may be afoot.”[2]

Yet to be released

The Supreme Court will likely affirm the Government’s argument; however, it will need to establish a rule about what constitutes a reasonable time after a citation or warning is given in which a police officer can use a canine to search a car.  A court will interpret reasonable length of time differently according to the size of the vehicle, for example a semi-truck with a trailer attached will command a more extensive dog search because of its massive size than will a family sedan.  This case will give law enforcement officials greater leeway to search an individual’s car after a traffic stop so long as relevant circumstances are apparent such as the officer’s knowledge of the neighborhood of the stop as a high crime area or a relatively crime free area, time of the stop, and how many officers are present at the stop.  This case will continue the long line of cases the Supreme Court has dealt with regarding traffic stops and the automobile exception first established in Carroll v. United States[3].

Written by Brian Zack
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by the United States Navy via Wikimedia Commons.

[1] See Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405, 407-08 (2005) (asserting that a search or seizure of a car becomes unlawful when the time required to complete the search takes longer than reasonably expected. Additionally, use of a drug sniffing does not make a search unlawful unless the dog sniff search violated privacy rights implied in the constitution).
[2] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968).
[3] See Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 153 (1925) (holding that the search of a “ship, motorboat, wagon, or automobile” is lawful under the circumstances because a warrant may not be obtained in time and because the vehicle’s mobility requires quick action).

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