Constitutional Win: SCOTUS Upholds Fourth Amendment Against Police Search

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In a 6-3 ruling Tuesday, The Supreme Court ruled that prolonging a traffic stop to allow a drug dog sniff the vehicle violates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures.

The case being ruled on resulted from a traffic stop in Nebraska that was extended by between seven and ten minutes in order to allow a second officer to respond to the scene with a canine.

Democratic Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were joined by Republican-appointed Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia in voting for the affirmative.

The justices held that:

“A seizure for a traffic violation justifies a police investigation of that violation….Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed. Lacking the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of the officer’s traffic mission…Highway and officer safety are interests different in kind from the Government’s endeavor to detect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular.”

GOP-appointees Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy dissented, saying that the stop’s total duration of about 29 minutes was reasonable, so any delay due to the dog issue did not violate the Constitution.

Thomas and Alito also said that various other observations, like an overpowering smell of air freshener, meant that the officer had reasonable suspicion to conduct the sniff anyway.

Alito suggested that the majority opinion could encourage officers to endanger themselves by conducting a dog sniff search without waiting for backup, but said the more likely result was that officers would intentionally make sure license-checks and citations were not completed until a dog sniff was done.