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Supreme Court rules to limit dog sniffs at traffic stops

People in Iowa may have heard about an important Supreme Court ruling from April that could put clear limits on the ability of police to detain motorists longer than necessary to complete the purpose of their stop. This is a very important ruling, because it sends the message to police all over the country that they cannot harass detained motorists, but instead must respect their time and let them go once the purpose of their stop has been completed.

The case before the Supreme Court involved a man in Nebraska who was pulling onto the highway from the shoulder when the police pulled him and his passenger over. Police had a suspicion, although not a reasonable and articulable suspicion, that the men were doing something illegal and called for a K-9 unit to do a sniff search on the vehicle. The officer detained the two men for several minutes until the K-9 unit arrived. When the dog sniffed the car and alerted the officers, they searched the car and found a quantity of illegal narcotics.

However, the Supreme Court has now ruled that by detaining the men while they awaited the arrival of the K-9 unit, the men's 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated. If the officer had evidence he could have pointed to in order to justify his suspicion of illegal activity, the detention may have been legal, but in this case he had only a vague hunch which is not sufficient grounds for further detention. This ruling reinforces the notion that police cannot simply detain a person indefinitely while they await for evidence of illegal activity, and should be seen as a victory for all citizens and their 4th Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court found in favor of the driver and sent his case back to the district court, where he could potentially have his conviction overturned. Evidence resulting from an illegal search and seizure must be suppressed, including an illegal detention, so the question for the lower courts will now be whether there were any other justifications present for detaining these men.

Source: NPR "Supreme Court: Police May Not Detain Traffic Violators Longer Than Necessary," Nina Totenberg, April 21, 2015

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