Around midnight one lovely evening a couple of years ago, a man was pulled over for driving on the highway’s shoulder, which is a traffic violation in the state where this took place. The officer went through all the usual business officers do when they pull someone over for a ticket — assessing him for signs of drunkenness, keeping an eye out for weapons, and checking his driver’s license and that of his passenger for any outstanding warrants. Everything checked out fine, so the officer issued the man a written warning.
Then he asked if the man would mind if the officer had a drug dog circle and sniff his vehicle. The man declined to consent to that search, which was his right. Under both the federal and Pennsylvania constitutions, law enforcement officers can’t search your car with a drug dog unless:
- They’ve actually arrested you,
- They have reasonable suspicion that you’re committing a drug offense, or
- You have given your consent to the search
In this case, no one was even cited for a traffic violation, there was no objective indication that the man had drugs, and he had refused to consent to the search. Nevertheless, the man was not allowed to leave.
Instead, the officer decided to perform the drug dog search anyway. He was a K9 officer, but he was alone and apparently couldn’t get the dog out of the car and have it walk around the car without backup. Backup was called, and the man in the car was told to wait. Ultimately, when the drug dog sniffed the man’s vehicles, it found drugs.
Does the War on Drugs justify police officers breaking the law?
Absolutely not, as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case, which is called Rodriguez v. US. Specifically, the Supreme Court ruled that cops can’t intentionally drag out the process of a traffic stop simply to give them time to perform an additional drug 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,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the 6-3 majority. “A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket for the violation.”