How long can a traffic stop be?
If the police observe a traffic violation, they may stop the car. But how long can that stop last? Surprisingly, until 2015 there wasn’t a clear legal answer to this common situation. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed this question in Rodriguez v. United States. Rodriguez had been stopped by the police for driving on the shoulder of a roadway. The officer spoke to Rodriguez, obtained his information, ran his license, and then issued him a ticket. After the officer issued the ticket, however, he didn’t let Rodriguez go. The officer instead held Rodriguez on the scene and then walked his police dog around Rodriguez’s car. The dog alerted that there were drugs present, and the officer searched the car and found drugs.
Rodriguez challenged the officer’s extension of the traffic stop. He argued that the stop had become illegal when the officer kept him on the scene after issuing him the ticket.
The Supreme Court agreed with Rodriguez. The Court laid down a rule that a traffic stop “becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket for the violation.”
Can the police Investigate crimes unrelated to the reason for the stop?
Yes, but Rodriguez placed a limit on this authority. The Court said that during a traffic stop, the police can check the driver's license, check for outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspect the car’s registration and insurance. The officer may also “conduct certain unrelated checks during an otherwise lawful traffic stop,” but he “may not do so in a way that prolongs the stop, absent the reasonable suspicion ordinarily demanded to justify detaining an individual.” In other words, if the police want to investigate a crime other than the traffic violation, they must have at least reasonable suspicion of that other crime.
Examples of crimes unrelated to the traffic stop.
Common examples are DWI and drug crimes. A DWI charge often begins with a traffic stop. Suppose that an officer stops a car for speeding. The officer approaches the driver to discuss the reason for the stop, and during that discussion the officer observes the telltale signs of an intoxicated driver: the odor of alcohol, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, confusion, etc. In this situation, the officer may ordinarily divert his investigation from speeding to the DWI charge. Under Rodriguez, the officer may prolong the stop to investigate the DWI because he has developed reasonable suspicion of DWI. The stop is no longer limited to the time it would take to issue a speeding ticket. It may last a reasonable period of time for the officer confirm or dispel his suspicion of DWI.
Another example is a drug offense that arises from a stop for speeding. If the officer develops reasonable suspicion that a person in the car is in possession of a drug, then the officer may extend the stop to investigate that possible drug crime. For example, an officer who stopped a driver for speeding may smell the odor of marijuana coming from inside the car. In that situation, the officer has reasonable suspicion of possession of marijuana, so he may extend the traffic stop to pursue that charge even if it extends beyond the time needed to issue a speeding ticket.
How can you challenge the length of a traffic stop?
An attorney well-versed in Rodriguez can discern whether the police have unlawfully prolonged a traffic stop. Sometimes the police begin to investigate a crime unrelated to the traffic stop but before they have developed reasonable suspicion of that other crime. For example, the police are sometimes eager to turn a traffic stop into a DWI investigation. When this happens, the key moment in time is when the police begin to extend the stop beyond the mission of issuing a ticket for the violation. If the officer speaks to the driver, removes him from the car, and begins to administer field sobriety tests, these actions must be justified by reasonable suspicion of DWI because they are not part of the mission of the original stop. If the officer had no reason to suspect a DWI but was instead taking these actions to find out whether there was any evidence of intoxication in the first place, then that would likely amount to an unlawfully prolonged stop under Rodriguez.
Why does the length of the traffic stop matter?
When the stop is unlawfully prolonged, it becomes an illegal seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In general, when the police find evidence of a crime during an illegal seizure, that evidence is excluded from court. This means that if the police prolong a traffic stop in violation of Rodriguez, then any evidence gained during that time cannot be introduced in court. For example, if the police prolong a stop without reasonable suspicion of DWI but eventually do gather enough evidence of intoxication by wearing down the driver and getting him to admit to excessive drinking or by administering several field sobriety tests until they see signs of intoxication, then those observations would be excluded from court because they occurred after the stop had become unlawful.