Can Police Dogs Search Your Car Without an Officer’s Reasonable Suspicion?

Author: Chris Gant, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Imagine being pulled over for a small traffic violation. Despite lacking a reason for suspicion, the police officer decides that you look like someone who might have something illegal in the car. Then, you wait for the K9 unit to get to your car (ten minutes, twenty minutes, or longer), the search turns up nothing, and you are free to go. While to some, this intrusion is a slight annoyance, to others, this search could have vast consequences for the rest of their lives if the illegal search produces contraband. The Supreme Court has held that a K9 drug sniff does not constitute a search, but has left the question open for how long a traffic stop can be delayed for a K9 unit, stating only that the delay must be “reasonable.”[1] An expansion of the definition of what is a “reasonable” delay has major consequences, and has the potential to turn any traffic stop into a witch-hunt for drugs. This scenario is a potential result of the Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling in Rodriguez v. United States. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held in United States v. Rodriguez that following the completion of a traffic stop, it was permissible under the Fourth Amendment for a police officer to make a driver wait while a dog was employed to sniff his car, despite the officer’s lack of reasonable suspicion that the car contained contraband.[2] The court held that the search was constitutional because it was merely a “de minimis” intrusion on the defendant’s rights.[3]

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has the opportunity correct the Eighth Circuit’s decision and protect Americans’ right against unreasonable searches. The Supreme Court should rid appellate courts of the “de minimis” doctrine with regards to the Fourth Amendment because any intrusion on the fundamental rights of American citizens—such as the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures—is an unacceptable intrusion, regardless of the degree of infringement. Moreover, the “de minimisstandard is an unworkable one where no-bright line rule can exist with practicality. The standard is ambiguous and leaves too much leeway for officers to intrude on the privacy of citizens, and so must be rejected.

Rodriguez v. United States

On March 27, 2012, Dennys Rodriguez was travelling along the highway when he was pulled over for a routine traffic stop after swerving onto the shoulder of the highway.[4] Rodriguez claims that he was avoiding a pothole, and the police officer issued him a warning.[5] Then, after furnishing Rodriguez with a warning, the police officer made him wait for another officer to arrive with a police dog to search for drugs in the car.[6] The dog indicated the presence of drugs to the police officers.[7] Upon a subsequent search, the police officers found contraband and arrested Rodriguez for possessing with the intent to sell methamphetamines.[8] Before trial, Rodriguez moved to suppress the evidence obtained in the search on the grounds that the traffic stop was unreasonably prolonged by the dog sniff in the absence of a reasonable suspicion, and then appealed the denial of this motion.[9] The Eight Circuit affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the motion, and Rodriquez has now appealed to the Supreme Court.[10]

In Illinois v. Caballes, the Supreme Court held that a K9 search may be the product of an unconstitutional seizure if a detainment is unreasonably prolonged before the dog is employed.[11] Moreover, the Court added that a traffic stop is unlawful if the search and seizure are prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the “mission” of the traffic stop. In Rodriguez, the police officer pulled the defendant over because he had swerved onto the shoulder to avoid a pothole. Seemingly persuaded with the defendant’s reasoning, the officer issued a warning to the defendant. At this point, the original mission of the stop was “completed”—to issue a warning to the driver for swerving onto the shoulder of a highway. It follows that the subsequent dog sniff and search unreasonably prolonged the traffic stop.

More broadly, the Eight Circuit’s idea of a “de minimis” intrusion is itself contradictory. The Supreme Court has stated, “[n]o right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded . . . than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person.”[12] Given the importance of the Fourth Amendment, the Court should find that an intrusion on Fourth Amendment rights in manner in Rodriguez is an intrusion, regardless of what measure of an intrusion it is. Moreover, the “de minimis” doctrine creates a dangerous notion that a police officer can intrude upon a citizen’s right to the “control of his person,” so long as the court finds that it is just a “slight” intrusion. This is a far cry from the classic examples of legitimate searches, such as an officer smelling a drug or having other notable suspicions and then searching the suspect’s car. The de minimis intrusion rule allows an officer to arbitrarily inconvenience and disregard citizens’ privacy solely because of a minor traffic violation. In this case, Rodriguez was subject to the intimidation of an investigation and eventual conviction solely because he swerved to avoid a pothole and the police had no reason to believe that he had done anything else.

A Bright-Line Rule Is Impossible

Equally problematic with the Eighth Circuit’s ruling is the inconsistency that will undoubtedly follow if the decision is allowed to stand. What circumstances would constitute more or less time that is to be considered “reasonable” and therefore only a “de minimis” intrusion of the defendant’s rights? For example, in Rodriguez, the court found seven to eight minutes to be a de minimis intrusion on the defendant’s liberty. The detention in Rodriguez was nearly twice as long as any detention that has previously been considered “de minimis” by the Eighth Circuit.[13] Conversely, the Supreme Court of Nevada held in State v. Beckman that nine minutes was too long, and therefore the intrusion was greater than de minimis.[14] This inconsistency leaves officers unclear as to what they can constitutionally do during a detainment; even worse, it leaves citizens with little idea of what their rights are and therefore unable to assert them. Moreover, it does not seem logical for the Supreme Court to arbitrarily set a time limit for a “de minimis” delay of a traffic stop, such as declaring that a police officer has “ten minutes and not a second longer” to prolong a stop. Because of the confusion and inconsistency related to previous de minimis rulings, the Supreme Court should deny that a “de minimis” standard exists in these cases and instead hold that a police officer cannot delay a detainment and conduct a K9 search without reasonable suspicion.

The Future of Fourth Amendment De Minimis Doctrine

The Eighth Circuit’s reliance on the de minimis doctrine is harmful to the rights of the American people. By allowing a delay and search without reasonable suspicion, the Eighth Circuit has eroded the fundamental right of an American to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. A “de minimis” intrusion on Fourth Amendment rights is still an intrusion on a fundamental right, and the Supreme Court should count any and all such intrusions for what they are: a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Allowing a “de minimis” standard in this regard would subject many Americans who are pulled over for minor traffic violations to be subject to inconvenience, delay, searches, and probing without reasonable suspicion just because a police officer has a “hunch.” Further, any arbitrary time limit would be illogical and unworkable for future courts and for law enforcement. For these reasons, the court should reject the Eighth Circuit’s ruling in Rodriguez and grant the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence recovered in an unconstitutional search and in doing so rule that any delay without reasonable suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment.

* Editor’s note (4/21/15): The Supreme Court has decided this case since this post was published. Read the full opinion here:

[1] Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005).

[2] United States v. Rodriguez, 741 F.3d 905 (8th Cir. 2014).

[3] Id. The term “de minimis” is defined as “lacking significance or importance; so minor as to merit disregard.” The phrase is used in a variety of legal doctrines, and here is used to describe an intrusion that is so insignificant that the search does not require reasonable suspicion. De minimis Definition, Merriam-Webster, (last visited Jan. 19, 2015). See also Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

[4] Rodriguez, 741 F.3d 905, 906 (8th Cir. 2014).

[5] Id. at 907.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 908, petition for cert. granted, Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 43 (2014).

[11] Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005).

[12] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

[13] Rodriguez, 741 F.3d at 907.

[14] State v. Beckman, 305 P.3d 912 (Nev. 2013).


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