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“A Cop’s ‘Large Hunch’ About Criminal Wrongdoing Won’t Do”: The Supreme Court Just Checked Cops’ Power To Extend Traffic Stops

Cases involving the Fourth Amendment’s proscription on unreasonable searches and seizures are the sleepers of every Supreme Court term. Unless the justices are confronted with new technologies or particularly invasive government practices—like body-cavity or thermal-imaging searches—these decisions rarely grab headlines, leaving only prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law professors to ponder their significance.

But this can’t be the norm—not in the wake of Ferguson, with heightened awareness of abusive policing. Today more than ever, an understanding of what limits the Constitution places on police and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of those limits should be essential knowledge. Anything less, to borrow the words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, would simply reduce the Fourth Amendment “to a useless piece of paper.”

Because at the root of Rodriguez v. United States, decided Tuesday by the Supreme Court, lies one of the most common, and perhaps the only, interaction law-abiding citizens will ever have with law enforcement: traffic stops. Being pulled over is so mundane, I wondered in February whether Chief Justice John Roberts had ever been inconvenienced by the practice, perhaps as a result of driving with a broken taillight—the kind of infraction that triggered the killing of Walter Scott in South Carolina earlier this month.

When Rodriguez was argued in January, Roberts asked how exactly traffic stops go down in real life, saying lightheartedly, “Usually, people have told me, when you’re stopped, the officer says, ‘License and registration.’” That drew laughs from the courtroom—the implication being that Roberts wouldn’t admit to ever having broken the law—but it also suggested that perhaps he doesn’t quite grasp how humiliating these encounters can be. This prompted a rebuttal in open court from Sotomayor, who told the chief that she’d been stopped and that the experience of being kept longer than the time required to give her a ticket was “annoying as heck.”

Whether Roberts eventually grasped as much is unclear, but he did join the six-justice majority that agreed that police can’t extend the length of a traffic stop beyond the time necessary to inquire into the alleged traffic violation. In a triumph for citizens’ rights, the Supreme Court ruled 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.”

That’s a big deal, if only because a lot can happen whenever police extend a traffic stop, even for a few minutes longer than necessary. To be sure, police already have wide latitude to stop anyone who is observed violating traffic laws; if probable cause exists that you’re not obeying the rules of the road, police are justified in stopping you. But what if, during the course of the stop, police also suspect you’re up to no good? Can they just hold you while they call in the dogs, as happened in Rodriguez, or for backup to conduct a wider criminal investigation? The lower courts that originally considered Rodriguez thought so, reasoning that a stop lasting, say, seven to ten minutes longer than necessary “was not of constitutional significance”—that the annoyance merely amounted to a “de minimis intrusion” on a motorist’s freedom of movement.

The Supreme Court didn’t buy that argument. “Authority for the seizure… ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority. The court focused exclusively on the true “mission” of traffic stops—incidentals such as “checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” All of these things are well and good when the initial stop is valid.

The problem arises when a well-meaning officer turns the traffic inquiry into a prolonged, crime-fighting one. Such unrelated “detours” away from the original traffic mission, the court observed, are unconstitutional without independent, reasonable suspicion that an actual crime has taken place. A cop’s “large hunch” about criminal wrongdoing won’t do.

That’s a commonsense approach—no one should be stopped for even a moment longer than absolutely necessary. But will the ruling deter police from trying other dilatory tactics? Rodriguez, for one, doesn’t explicitly forbid officers from, say, taking their sweet time while running your license plate or from engaging in “friendly” small talk aimed at eliciting consent. These end-runs are still largely acceptable, and only time will tell what other methods cops will employ to bide their time and divine suspicion where initially there was none.

Until then, the Supreme Court should be commended for making the right call and delivering a ruling that, though far from a blockbuster, should encourage anyone who cares about the continued vitality of the Fourth Amendment. In post-Ferguson America, there’s just no other section of the Constitution that matters more—the power of policing rises and falls with every pronouncement on it.


By: Cristian Farias, The New Republic, April 22, 2015

April 23, 2015 Posted by | 4th Amendment, Rodriguez v United States, U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“People Have Told Me About Stops!”: The Chief Justice Has Never Been Pulled Over In His Life

In a little-noticed hearing last month, the Supreme Court considered Rodriguez v. United States, a case involving the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The core issue the justices confronted was how long a police officer could extend a routine traffic stop for purposes of calling in the dogs—drug-sniffing dogs.

At first blush, the question seems uncomplicated and slightly mundane. Who cares about police canines? The vast majority of drivers won’t be drug kingpins or carry illegal contraband in their cars. But the Fourth Amendment doesn’t exist to protect drug traffickers; it protects everyone from police overreach. Whatever the court decides on any Fourth Amendment case—the court accepts a number of them every year—should matter to everyone.

And judging from how oral arguments in Rodriguez played out, you have reason to worry about how the justices will rule. Because for an hour, they grappled, interrupted one another, suggested potential rules, posed lengthy hypotheticals, and in the end couldn’t seem to reach any consensus on how to decide the case. Viewed charitably, the hearing was a hot mess.

The apparent confusion in the courtroom was useful in one respect: It illuminated the cluelessness of Chief Justice John Roberts when it comes to traffic stops. Addressing the lawyer who was representing Dennys Rodriguez, the petitioner in the case, Roberts said, “Usually, people have told me, when you’re stopped, the officer says, ‘License and registration.’ ”

There was laughter in the courtroom. And the lawyer, recently retired federal public defender Shannon P. O’Connor, played along and responded with humor: “I’ve had friends that say the same thing, Mr. Chief Justice.”

But to anyone who closely watches the court’s jurisprudence on the Fourth Amendment, there’s nothing funny about Roberts’ naiveté about traffic stops, let alone his ignorance of the real frustration that comes with being kept even a second longer than necessary. The “seizure” of a person, in constitutional lingo, is in fact part and parcel of all of our recent conversations about policing in America. New York’s stop-and-frisk saga, the death of Michael Brown, and incidents involving use of force by police all implicate police departments’ and courts’ interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was not amused. Later in the arguments, she turned to Roberts and said, “Chief, I’ve been stopped … [and] keeping me past giving me the ticket is annoying as heck, whether it’s five minutes, 10 minutes, [or] 45.” She placed a lot of emphasis on the word heck.

Sotomayor knows a little something about stops, and no, it has nothing to do with her upbringing in the Bronx or the fact that she has been pulled over before. She is the only sitting justice who actually has criminal trial experience—first as a prosecutor, and later as a district judge in Manhattan. She has presided over hearings calling for the suppression of illegal evidence, over criminal trials where that evidence was later at play, in civil cases against prison officials and police officers accused of false imprisonment or the use of excessive bodily force. She has seen how the Fourth Amendment plays out in real life.

This first-hand experience may explain why she was the lone dissenter in another case involving brushes with law enforcement. In December, she and Roberts were on opposite ends in Heien v. North Carolina, a case that green-lighted reasonable “mistakes of law” as the basis for a traffic stop. Though ignorance of the law is no excuse for an average citizen under any circumstance, the Supreme Court decided that it is a valid excuse for an officer who suspects you may be committing some offense, even if the offense is not on the books.

“To be reasonable is not to be perfect,” Roberts wrote, “and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.”

Roberts’ phraseology about “fair leeway” is lofty, but it turned the meaning of the Fourth Amendment on its head, confounding its role as community protection by the government rather than from the government. And “reasonableness,” at least in the context of policing, has taken on a life of its own at the Supreme Court—leading one scholar to note that its invocation is merely a cover for the court’s “own values regarding the need for the particular police practice at issue.”

Though Roberts’ deference towards police ignorance won the day in Heien, Sotomayor did take an opportunity to remind her colleagues that the ruling will have real-life effects on those most likely to endure uncomfortable encounters with the police: minorities and communities of color. She wrote that the court’s decision has the potential of “further eroding the … protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.” She called these the “human consequences” of the court’s rulings on the Fourth Amendment and wondered “how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening, and humiliating encounters could do so.”

Roberts, for all his intelligence, is ill-equipped to wrap his brain around that scenario; he has never been stopped by the police before. (The Supreme Court press office did not reply to a request for confirmation of Roberts’ lack of experience in this regard.) He did author a landmark ruling last year on the necessity of warrants prior to rummaging through a cellphone, but think of the factual premise: He probably does have a smartphone with extremely personal information.

Not so with close encounters with police. To assume that he and the rest of the court will issue a principled ruling on how many minutes a traffic stop can be extended—the answer, in a perfect world, should be zero—ignores that the court has already ruled constitutional far more invasive government practices, all under the guise of reasonableness, pat-downs and body-cavity searches among them.

America’s attention will turn to Obamacare and same-sex marriage when the Supreme Court entertains them later in the year. It is little cases like Rodriguez—easily lost in the news cycle—that have the greatest potential to undermine further the already-strained relationship between the community and the police.


By: Cristin Farias, Slate, February 11, 2015

February 13, 2015 Posted by | 4th Amendment, John Roberts, Rodriguez v United States | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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