US Supreme Court Says No to Suspicionless Detentions

In an important decision today, a 6-3 majority of the United States Supreme Court held that a police officer must release a motorist after the officer has resolved the underlying purpose of the motor vehicle stop. Rodriguez v. United States (US Supreme Ct. Apr. 21, 2015).

Facts of the Case

A Nebraska K-9 Officer stopped Dennys Rodriguez for driving on the shoulder, a violation of state law. After the Officer gave Rodriguez a warning, he then asked Rodriguez if he would consent to having his dog walk around Rodriguez's car and sniff it for drugs.

When Rodriguez refused, the trooper detained Rodriguez for 9 minute while waiting for a second officer to arrive, and then did the walk-around. The dog alerted, and the police eventually found methamphetamine in the car.

The Court Elevates Privacy Rights over the War on Drugs

The lower courts had held this additional 9-minute plus detention to be OK because it was "de minimus" (call it Latin for "no big deal"), but the US Supreme Court held that the additional detention was unlawful because the police officer had no reasonable suspicion to believe that Rodriguez had committed, was committing or was about to commit any crime.

Justices Don't Always Vote on "Party Lines"

It's interesting to look at the composition of the Justices who sided with the privacy rights of the individual in this case: Conservative justices Scalia and Roberts; moderate Justice Breyer; liberal Justices Ginsburg and Kagan. In dissent (and siding with the police) were right-wing Justices Thomas and Alito, moderate-to-conservative "swing vote" Justice Kennedy. So much for the labels.

How Could Anyone Think this is "OK"?

It's incredible to think that there could even be a debate about this case - that the lower courts, and three Justices in the highest Court of the land, could believe that its acceptable for police to harass people in this manner - detaining them with absolutely no reason to think that the person had done anything wrong. Is 9 minutes "de minimus"? What if a citizen is on her way to a job interview, had hit some traffic, and was just going to make it on time? When we think about how rushed our lives are today - struggling to balance responsibilities towards our jobs, our families and our personal lives (for those who have one), it's hard to believe that anyone would think that a 9 minute detention based on absolutely no suspicious behavior is "no big deal."

Big Win for the Nation, No Big Deal for New Hampshire

This is a big win for the Fourth Amendment, and therefore, for the entire nation. For NH residents, we already had this protection under Part I, Article 19 of the State Constitution, so this decision does not change the law governing the conduct of NH police officers. State v. McKinnon Andrews, 151 N.H. 19 (2004).