The law makes it easy for police to stop a car because of a minor infraction — even if the real reason for the stop is a hunch or a hope that the officer will find drugs or other evidence of a more serious crime. The Supreme Court exacerbated that problem in 2005 when it ruled that police are free to have a dog sniff a stopped car for evidence of drugs, without a warrant or even reasonable suspicion.
This week the Supreme Court imposed some limits on that mistaken decision, but left in place its central — and offensive — holding: that police are able to deploy drug-sniffing dogs against a car stopped for a reason that has nothing to do with drugs.
In a 6-3 ruling that united liberals and conservatives, the justices on Tuesday held that police may not prolong a traffic stop in order to deploy a drug-sniffing dog. Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said 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 case involved an appeal by Dennys Rodriguez, who was pulled over in Nebraska after his SUV was observed veering briefly onto the shoulder of the highway, a violation of state law. The K-9 officer who stopped Rodriguez questioned him and his passenger, Scott Pollman, ran a records check on both men and then issued a written warning. But instead of letting the men leave, the office detained them until his dog could sniff around the vehicle. After the dog "alerted," police searched the SUV and found a large bag of methamphetamine.
The issue in this case is whether police may prolong a traffic stop after they have resolved the issue that prompted it so they can deploy a drug-sniffing dog even if there's no reasonable suspicion of drugs. The court emphatically said they may not.
As a practical matter, this ruling may reduce the number of times police deploy drug-sniffing dogs, because most police officers who execute traffic stops aren't accompanied by dogs and may find it difficult to drag out the paperwork long enough to summon one from elsewhere. But that's a modest improvement at best.
This decision is being praised as proof that the justices of the Supreme Court, like Americans in general, are increasingly concerned that police are pushing the limits of their authority in ways that violate individual rights. The best way to send that message is to overrule the 2005 decision and require that police demonstrate reasonable suspicion of a crime before bringing out the dogs.