Apr 212015

The Supreme Court puts its collective foot down: a traffic stop is only allowed for as long as it is ONLY a traffic stop. 

This morning, in an extremely important 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court put an end (hopefully for good, although it’s hard to believe) to one of the most pernicious problems in the realm of police abuses: traffic stops that are actually just unconstitutional fishing expeditions.

A typical traffic stop goes something like this: license, registration, do you know why I pulled you over, check for wants/warrants, and here’s your citation. Unless, of course, you’re someone the officer finds vaguely suspicious, annoying, or who otherwise gives the officer a ‘bad vibe’. In that case, a traffic stop can become a twenty-minute interrogation, a two-hour nightmare, or a life-altering arrest. It becomes a fishing expedition, a search for any pretext to pull you out of the car and search your vehicle with a fine-tooth comb. This latter type of stop is a lived reality for many people, most of whom do not enjoy the privilege of being a white person driving a nice car.

The legal shorthand for this kind of traffic stop is a “prolonged detention”– a traffic stop that gets extended to the point where it’s clearly no longer just a traffic enforcement stop, but rather, a pretext for violating the citizen’s constitutional rights. I cannot tell you (literally, I can’t say) just how many prolonged detention situations come through my office in any given week. Stops are perpetuated long after any reasonable officer making any effort could have completed the encounter, issued the citation, and allowed the motorist to move along on his or her way. People are told that they must consent to searches of their vehicles, either by the officer personally, or by K-9 dog sniff. It is a standard police tactic. I have actually heard officers on tape debating whether or not to extend a traffic stop with their partner, depending on how busy they happen to be. Are you busy? No? Then what the heck, let’s see if we can search this vehicle.

Prolonged detentions are a serious problem that erodes police relationships with socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. It makes citizens who know they are being singled out for how they look rightly mistrustful of the police. Furthermore, in my opinion, it serves as a sort of “gateway” behavior which leads to other undesirable unconstitutional police practices. Young officers on traffic beats learn to ignore the basic ground rules for how citizen encounters are supposed to go; training situations become examples of how the rules learned in training academies aren’t really the way the job should be done. Officers need to simply, clearly, and unequivocally understand and treat traffic stops the way the majority of white, wealthy Americans understand them: a brief stop to enforce traffic safety, an inconvenience focused on making sure that you are a licensed, insured driver in a registered vehicle, and then issuing you a fine or penalty for not obeying the vehicle code. And that’s all traffic stops are allowed to be.

The United States Supreme Court has attempted to draw this “line in the sand” regarding prolonged detentions before. Every time it has, police have been enabled by lower courts, who have come up with all kinds of reasons why a clearly prolonged detention was allowable under these circumstances, or in this particular situation, etc., etc. Today, in Rodriguez v. United States, a clear 6-3 majority (including two traditionally “conservative” justices, Scalia and Roberts) signed on to a single opinion by Justice Ginsburg. That opinion makes short, clear, sweet work of the issue, and draws that line one more time: a traffic stop can only last as long as it would reasonably take an officer to fulfill the true purpose of a traffic stop. It can’t be delayed or extended on a whim, a hunch, a bad feeling, or certainly not (as in the example I mentioned above) out of boredom. If you pull someone over for a busted taillight or illegally tinted windows, then do what you need to do to issue a citation, and move along. Fishing expeditions are simply not allowable.

I’m attaching a link to the opinion here; it’s absolutely worth the read. In the meantime, nothing helps reform bad police practices as much as citizens who know and understand their rights. To that end, stay tuned for a post tomorrow on what you should be doing if you believe you are being subjected to a prolonged detention in violation of Rodriguez v. United States.

 Posted by at 2:28 pm

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