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Traffic detention stopwatch analysis explained

The court rules on whether a dog sniff or the vehicle inventory and impound led to the extension of the traffic stop

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Traffic stop

Numerous cases have examined the timing of a traffic stop in connection with a drug detector dog sniff.


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UNITED STATES V. JOHNSON, 2024 WL 635281 (7th Cir. 2024)

The United States Supreme Court invited lower courts to carefully scrutinize the timeline of a traffic stop in Rodriguez v. United States (575 U.S. 348 (2015)). In Rodriguez, the Court held that a traffic detention must last no longer than necessary to resolve the suspected traffic violation, either by warning, citation or hearing an explanation from the driver. A stop may “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the initial purpose of the stop. Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.”

The Court instructed that officers may take the time necessary to determine “whether to issue a traffic ticket,” performing activities 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” (Rodriguez v. United States). Extending the stop beyond that time requires an independent reason to further detain the driver.

Since the Rodriguez decision, numerous cases have examined the timing of a traffic stop in connection with a drug detector dog sniff. That was the question facing the court following Adrian Johnson’s detention for driving with a suspended license.

A deputy patrolling with his drug detector dog saw Johnson driving a white SUV in the opposite direction. As he drove past, Johnson was looking under his arm, perhaps checking deodorant status or trying to hide his face. Suspicious, the deputy began to follow Johnson. The deputy learned Johnson’s vehicle registration was expired and turned on his emergency lights to initiate a traffic stop. Johnson pulled over after an unusually long time.

Johnson showed the deputy some identification and a bill of sale for the SUV, though he did not provide his driver’s license. A computer check revealed Johnson had a suspended license and a prior conviction, which made it a misdemeanor for him to drive. The deputy decided to impound the car. He called for backup and began preparing an impound form and a warning citation for the expired registration. Another deputy soon arrived.

Consistent with department policy, the deputy intended to inventory the SUV as part of the impound process. The deputy instructed Johnson to get out of his SUV to facilitate the inventory. The deputies decided to place Johnson in the back seat of a patrol car rather than leave him standing on a highway on a cold January night while they inventoried the SUV.

As the second deputy walked Johnson back to her car, the first deputy walked his drug detector dog to Johnson’s SUV. In less than 85 seconds from the time Johnson started walking to the patrol car, the detector dog had given two positive final responses to the odor of controlled substances. But don’t focus on the 85 seconds just yet! The deputies found methamphetamine, fentanyl, drug paraphernalia and two handguns.

Johnson was charged with possession of drugs with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. Johnson asked the trial court to suppress all evidence, arguing the search of his SUV was unlawful. The trial court denied the motion, and Johnson pled guilty, reserving his right to appeal the suppression ruling.

The appellate court began by citing the Rodriguez rule: “If an officer prolongs a stop beyond its permissible length to conduct a dog sniff, even for a short time, the stop becomes unlawful unless the officer has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” The prosecution argued the deputy did not prolong the stop, but even if he did, the extension of the stop was independently supported by reasonable suspicion. Alternatively, the prosecution asserted the drugs and guns would inevitably have been discovered during the inventory search.

The appellate court stated the stop was prolonged. However, it was not extended by the deputy’s “dragging feet during a traffic stop to give a trained dog time to arrive.” The stop was extended by the deputy’s “discovery that he would have to impound Johnson’s car and not allow him to drive away in it.” Johnson “was already in police custody and going nowhere.”

If the second deputy decided to place Johnson in her car only to facilitate the dog sniff and not as a reasonably incidental step as part of a traffic stop or to get Johnson out of the cold, “the Rodriguez rule might well be violated.” The court had previously held that “securing a suspect in a police vehicle can be ‘reasonably incidental’ to a traffic stop.” Even so, the dash camera video footage from the first deputy’s patrol car showed that, at the beginning of the dog sniff, Johnson was walking with the other deputy to her patrol vehicle.

In Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court recognized that an officer may “detour” to investigate potential crimes beyond the initial reason for the stop and expressly allowed “safety precautions taken in order to facilitate such detours.” The “critical question” under Rodriguez is not whether the officer conducted any investigatory task during the stop. Rather, the court must consider “whether conducting the sniff prolongs — i.e., adds time to — the stop.” In this case, it did not, and the evidence was properly admitted. See United States v. Hayes (2023 WL 2542654 (10th Cir. 2023)) discussed in an earlier issue of Xiphos.

Having resolved the case on other grounds, the court did not address the issue of inevitable discovery of the guns and drugs during the inventory. Nonetheless, because the department had a clear written policy requiring an inventory of an impounded vehicle and the fact that the deputy followed the policy, there is no doubt the inevitable discovery doctrine would have applied. Thus, Johnson loses on every point.

Read more Ken Wallentine case reviews here.

Ken Wallentine is the chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.