The Fourth Amendment gives all U.S. citizens the right to privacy in their own homes. This right extends to the citizen’s personal spaces, including cars, property and more. But in a car, the potential to be asked to submit to “search and seizure” is much greater, as the average citizen can be stopped for a variety of reasons: a traffic violation, potential drunk driving, a broken taillight, or many other things.
A police officer who initiates a traffic stop and then sees something illegal through a car window may have more cause to search the vehicle, fearing that the driver will continue his or her unsafe activity and put others at risk.
It becomes very tricky to determine when a person’s right to privacy has been violated in a traffic stop. Because the windows and walls of a car are more visible than the walls of a house, and because of the nature of most traffic stops, drivers are at more risk for being searched in order to prevent certain risky driving behavior.
In a recent case decided by the United States Supreme Court, the privacy rights afforded by the Fourth Amendment were brought to the center of the argument. In Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court enhanced the Fourth Amendment protections as they apply to vehicle and traffic stops.
In March of 2012, Dennys Rodriguez was pulled over by a Nebraska police officer after he veered his car briefly onto the shoulder of the highway and then pulled back onto the road. The officer, who was part of the K-9 unit and had his police dog with him, conducted a records check, questioned Rodriguez and the passenger, and then wrote Rodriguez a warning. The initial stop was concluded and Rodriguez should have been free to go.
However, the officer asked for permission to walk the police dog around Rodriguez’s car. When Rodriguez said no, the officer made him get out of the vehicle and called for backup. After a second officer arrived, the dog was walked around the vehicle, and the officer ultimately found a bag of methamphetamines. Eight minutes had passed between the time Rodriguez received his ticket and the time the dog found the drugs.
This eight-minute window was found to be the period in which Rodriguez’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the officer had no reason to suspect Rodriguez of any wrongdoing after issuing his ticket and his stop should have ended once he was cited for the traffic violation.
The Fourth Amendment protects Rodriguez’s right to privacy in his car. The decision to continue to detain Rodriguez and his passenger, and to have the dog inspect the car for drugs, was unfounded based on the circumstances of the stop, the court judges ruled. If a traffic stop is prolonged beyond reasonable timeframes, it may become illegal, and in this case, the extra eight minutes pushed this stop over the edge.
At the law offices of Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our New Jersey criminal lawyers represent anyone who has been charged with crimes due to illegal or unfounded police actions. To discuss your case, contact an HCK attorney today.