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Supreme Court Bars Police Searches of Motorists Without Probable Cause

Ruth Bader Ginsburg + Elena Kagan

The U.S. Supreme Court, including justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, ruled on Tuesday that drivers pulled over by police for traffic violations cannot be detained for additional investigations without reasonable suspicion.

“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, ” Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion.

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“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, ” she wrote.

The case emerged from a March 2012 incident in Nebraska when a police officer stopped Dennys Rodriguez after observing him swerve into the shoulder of the highway. After checking his license and registration, the officer asked if he could use a trained dog to sniff the vehicle for drugs. Rodriguez refused, but the officer carried out the search anyway and found a bag of methamphetamine, said.

The 6-to-3 decision puts police on notice that once they stop someone for a valid traffic infraction, the time of the stop can be viewed by courts as an indication that the search was reasonable or unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The court rejected a government argument that if an officer completes traffic-related investigative tasks quickly, he can earn bonus time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation, the Monitor said.

“If an officer can complete traffic-based inquiries expeditiously, then that is the amount of time reasonably required to complete the stop’s mission, ” Ginsburg added, saying that a traffic stop extended beyond that point for a different purpose would be unlawful.

The justices did not resolve the issue of whether the police had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that would justify the continued detention of Rodriguez and the use of the drug-sniffing dog.



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