The Never Ending Traffic Stop: Why Informing Citizens of Completion is Necessary

Madeline Moss, Staff Editor[1]

            Particularly concerning today’s political climate, defining the line regarding acceptable police practices grows ever more important. Although rules have been established to curtail the ability of law enforcement to prolong traffic stops, the practical effect will be minimized due to the fact that law enforcement officials do not have to inform citizens of when they are free to leave after a routine traffic stop has been completed.[2]

This ambiguity is evidenced by the seemingly incompatible Supreme Court rulings in Ohio v. Robinette[3] and Rodriguez v. United States. [4] In Robinette, the defendant was pulled over for speeding and given a verbal warning.[5] Upon returning his license, the officer then asked if the defendant had any contraband in the car.[6] The defendant said no, yet consented to a search that produced a small amount of marijuana and one methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) pill.[7] Although the Supreme Court of Ohio attempted to create a bright line rule establishing that law enforcement officers must inform citizens stopped for traffic offenses when they are free to go before requesting a voluntary consent search,[8]the Supreme Court of the United States reversed.[9] They stated that although knowledge of the right to refuse consent is a cumulative factor, it is not a required element of an effective consent and, furthermore, would be unrealistic to require of law enforcement officers.[10]

Twenty years later, Rodriguez comes before the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of prolonging a traditional traffic stop—without reasonable suspicion—to allow time for a drug dog to come perform a “sniff” around the vehicle.[11] The court held that prolonging a traffic stop past the time reasonably required to complete the mission of the stop in order to perform a dog sniff without reasonable suspicion constitutes an unreasonable seizure, stating that once the “mission” of the traffic stop had been completed, any detention resulting from the extension of that stop would be unlawful.[12]

Although heeding the precedent laid down in previous cases, Rodriguez establishes a line drawn by the Court to constrain the constitutionally allowable length of a citizen’s detention incident to a traffic stop.[13] The line drawn by this ruling is muddied, however, by the fact that officers are not legally required to give notice that the mission of the stop has completed pursuant to Robinette.[14] Therefore, once the mission of a stop has been completed, satisfying Rodriguez, the officers still remain free to continue the stop by requesting a voluntary consent search, or a search that is “the product of a person’s free will and unconstrained choice.”[15] Many argue, however, that due to the authoritative nature of a police presence and the coercion that accompanies it, consent to these types of searches rarely comports with that definition.[16] Many people still feel obligated to allow a police officer to search, regardless of the tone of the request.[17]  This is particularly true of members of certain racial and cultural groups who fear confrontation with the police.[18]

Unfortunately, the average citizen does not know when the mission of the stop has been completed, and when he or she is free to leave unless explicitly told. Until a bright line rule establishing that law enforcement officials must inform citizens when the mission of the traffic stop has been completed, the rule laid down in Rodriguez may not have the same practical effect in every day interactions with law enforcement as it does in theory.

[1] J.D. Expected May 2019.

[2] Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015); Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33 (1996).

[3] Robinette, 519 U.S. at 40.

[4] Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. at 1616.

[5] Robinette, 519 U.S. at 35.

[6] Id. at 35–36.

[7] Id. at 36.

[8] Id. at 36

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 38, 40.

[11] Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct. at 1614.

[12] Id. at 1615.

[13] Rodriguez, 135 S. Ct at 1615. See generally Arizona v. Johnson, 555 U.S. 323 (2009); Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005) (admonishing that a traffic stop can become unlawful if prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission).

[14] Robinette, 519 U.S. at 39–40.

[15] Marcy Strauss, Reconstructing Consent, 92 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 211, 212 (2002).

[16] Id. at 241.

[17] Id. at 242.

[18] Id. at 244.

*Featured image provided by Highway Patrol Images, licensed under CC BY 2.0