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Drug Dog Better Be On Time: High Court Strengthens Fourth Amendment in Sniffing Case

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Too bad, officer. If your drug dog isn't handy, you can't keep the driver waiting. According to Julian Hattem with the Hill, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled yesterday that officers cannot keep someone waiting or detained - absent probable cause - after the officer has already dealt with the original issue, such as having issued a ticket for speeding.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, "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."

In the case at hand, a driver was pulled over for "erratic driving," and the officer issued the driver a warning. The officer then asked the driver if he could have a drug-sniffing dog check the vehicle. Despite the driver's refusal, the officer made the driver wait until the dog's arrival. The dog found methamphetamine.

Again, Ginsburg: "[T]he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure's 'mission' - to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop. Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are - or reasonably should have been - completed."

It could have gone the other way. As Hattem reports, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that making a suspect wait a few extra minutes isn't a violation of the Fourth Amendment, in the context of reasonable suspicion. To prohibit an officer from taking time to retrieve the drug dog (thus making the driver wait), argued Thomas, blurs the line between reasonable suspicion and probable cause.

As it happened, the ruling is important because every victory for the private citizen, in the context of the Constitution and the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, helps safeguard against governmental overreach. Preventing police officers from doing more than what the original traffic stop calls for seems to be a matter of good policy.

(Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/8Nejxo) 

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