K-9 Sweeps During Lawful Traffic Stops: How Long of a detention is too long?

Since the United States Supreme Court rule in U.S. v. Sharpe, there has been an abundance of case law relating to the length a suspect may be detained during a traffic stop. 470 U.S. 675 (1985). Many, if not all of the cases analyzing this question are in the context of a lawful traffic stop, where the police continue to detain a suspect in order to call a canine to "sweep" the vehicle. Most cases held that so long as the "traffic stop is not unnecessarily prolonged in order to permit a drug sniff" then the search is permissible after a lawful traffic stop. See State v. Brown, (Fla. 5th DCA 1997). This unnecessarily prolonged" language created a good deal of ambiguity as to how long a stop could be extended in order to wait for and conduct a k-9 sniff for contraband after a lawful traffic stop. The court frequently stated that there is no specific number of minutes that must pass to render the duration of the stop unreasonable, but instead, the determination should be made on a case by case basis. See Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005); Williams v. State, 869 So. 2d 750 (Fla. 5th DCA 2004) (explaining that the suspect may be detained no longer than the time required to issue a citation, make a license, tag, insurance, and registration check, so long as that information can be obtained within a reasonable time); Sanchez v. State, 847 So. 2d 1043 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003) (finding a twenty to thirty minute detention reasonable, because the officer was attending to license, registration, and warrants checks). But see Whitfield v. State, 33 So. 3d 787 (Fla. 5th DCA 2010) (finding that an eleven minute detention was unreasonable, because the attendant searches to the lawful stop should have been completed when the drug sniff was performed). Accordingly, law enforcement frequently called for a canine team during a lawful stop, and detained drivers for a period of time to await the arrival of the canine and conduct a drug sweep.

However, in Rodriguez v. U.S., the United States Supreme Court clarified the law regarding extended detention of a lawfully stopped vehicle for the purpose of conducting a drug sweep. 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015).

In Rodriguez the suspect was lawfully stopped for driving on the shoulder of the highway, a violation of the traffic code. Id. at 1610. The officer ran his license, and issued him a warning, and then asked permission to conduct a drug sweep of the vehicle. Id. The driver declined and the officer called a drug dog who arrived and conducted a sweep of the vehicle Id. The Court held that although only seven (7) to eight (8) minutes passed from the issuance of the citation to the dog’s alert, the short detention was illegal, and unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Id. at 1610-11.

The Rodriguez court clarified that "[t]he critical question is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff adds time to the stop." Id. at 1612. Relying on Rodriguez, a number of Florida Courts have ruled that even short extensions of time in a lawful traffic stop are unreasonable. See Underhill v. State, 197 So. 3d 90 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016) (finding it unreasonable for the detective to run a k-9 sweep for drugs around a vehicle, while he ran a license and registration check, because the check came back clean in the middle of the sweep, and accordingly the sweep extended the time of the stop); Vangansbeke v. State, — So. 3d — (Fla. 5th DCA 2017) (suppressing evidence based on length of detention where drug dog arrived nineteen minutes into the stop, and the officer was in the middle of writing the citation when the dog arrived); Jones v. State, 187 So. 3d 346 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016) (finding a Fourth Amendment violation where the officer conducted a drug sweep prior to running any license, registration, or warrants checks, and almost immediately upon stopping the defendant, because he abandonedthe purpose of the stop to conduct a drug investigation, which extended the duration of the stop).

It is clear that based on the authority of Rodriguez: if the officer extends the duration of the traffic stop, even for a minute, the detention is unlawful and any evidence obtained as a result of the detention must be suppressed. Moving forward, Counsel arguing unreasonable detention cases should be sure to cite to Rodriguez and the litany of Florida cases that have since followed. The focus of the inquiry in these arguments should be whether the sniff extended the stop, rather than whether the citation had been issued, the number of minutes that passed from the stop to the sniff, or even whether the necessary checks had been completed.

The long and short: Rodriguez seemingly clarifies the law in the area of traffic stops involving a k-9 sweep, and arguably gives more credence to the citizen's right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

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