How Long Can an Officer Detain Me During a Traffic Stop?

Have you ever been cruising down the interstate, humming along to one of your favorites on the radio, and enjoying a beautiful day when you look in the rearview mirror and see flashes of blue and red?  You quickly look down at your speedometer.  11 m.p.h. over the speed limit. Your heart sinks.  You pull over to the side of the road. The officer approaches and tells you that you were speeding.  You swallow the lump in your throat as he asks for your license, registration, and insurance. You hand your documents to him and he briefly scans them over.  The officer asks you if you wouldn’t mind stepping out and walking over to the shoulder while he runs your information.  He heads back to his car.  You stand around on the side of the road, nervously shifting side to side and looking back at the officer’s vehicle.  Five minutes goes by.  What is going on back there, you wonder? Ten minutes goes by. Then twenty.  It seems like it’s been hours.  What is taking so long? What is going to happen?

Just then, a second officer pulls up with big, bold letters on the side of his vehicle. It says “K-9.”

The second officer gets out of the vehicle with a German Shepard.  He runs the dog around your car.  Fido sits down near the rear of the vehicle and stares intently at the trunk.  The dog handler then pats the dog’s head and walks the dog back to his vehicle.  The second officer taps on first officer’s window.  They chit-chat briefly beside the squad car.  Both officers are now walking toward you.  What is going on here, you wonder? Officer one hands you back your paperwork and says he wrote you a warning for the speed.  Thanks for the break, you think to yourself.  He then says officer two’s canine “alerted” to the presence of narcotics in your vehicle and he now has probable cause to search.

Cue that sinking feeling again.

Officers then search your vehicle and go through all your belongings. Officers find a little bit of weed in your center console.  Officer one informs you he is now arresting you for possession of marijuana and you need to come with him back to the jail.  He puts you in handcuffs and tells you your vehicle is being towed.

You’re probably thinking to yourself…How in the hell did that just happen? I was just driving down the road!  Is what they just did legal?

Is this legal? Can the officer detain you indefinitely in order to get a drug dog on scene to sniff your vehicle for drugs? If they can’t detain you indefinitely, then how long can they detain you?

The short answer: No, officers who stop individuals for routine traffic violations cannot detain a person indefinitely to conduct a dog sniff for contraband.  Both the United States Supreme Court and the Iowa Supreme Court have made this clear. In a case called Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015), the United States Supreme Court was faced with this precise question.  In Rodriguez, a driver was pulled over after an officer observed the vehicle temporarily veer onto the shoulder of the highway. After running a records check of the driver and passenger and writing a written warning, the officer then asked if he could walk his drug-sniffing dog around the vehicle.  The driver declined.  The officer then detained the driver, passenger, and the vehicle until a deputy arrived.  With the second officer present, the officer then ran his dog around the vehicle and the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics.  The vehicle was searched and the search uncovered contraband.  The total delay between the issuance of the written warning and the dog’s “alert” on the vehicle was 7-8 minutes.

The U.S. Supreme Court found that the delay between the time that the warning was written and the dog’s alert transformed the seizure of the vehicle and its occupants into an unconstitutional one.  The Court declared that the officer’s authority to seize the occupant and vehicle ends when the tasks tied to a traffic infraction are or reasonably should be completed.  The officer’s drug investigation added seven to eight minutes to Rodriguez’s detention, rendering it unconstitutional unless the government had reasonable suspicion of criminal activity apart from the traffic violation.

The Court then found that the officer did not develop reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity in the time that it took for him to complete the traffic warning.

So what happens if a second officer comes and runs a dog around my vehicle during the period of time it takes for the officer to complete a traffic ticket?

According to Rodriguez, that is permissible only if the dog sniff doesn’t prolong the stop. If it prolongs the stop beyond the time that the officer should have completed the stop, the additional seizure and dog sniff is illegal

Well, can’t the officer just dilly-dally? What if the officer is purposely writing my traffic ticket slowly in order to get a canine officer on scene?

An officer cannot be intentionally slow-paced in order to get a canine officer on scene.  The stop must end when the officer should have reasonably processed the ticket.

Can an officer do a bunch of other things, like check for warrants, while writing the ticket?

Rodriguez suggests that an officer can check the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspect the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.

What if an officer does decide to wait for a dog? What evidence do they need to have in order to detain me past the time necessary for the officer to finish the business related to the traffic ticket?

If an officer wants to detain a person beyond the time necessary to conclude the business of a traffic stop, they must develop what is called “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.” This means that the officer must have some independent evidence outside of the traffic violation that leads them to believe that a person is engaging in a criminal activity.

So, what kinds of things constitute “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity?”

Short answer: it all depends on the facts of the case.  The Iowa Supreme Court examined that question in a case called In re Pardee, 872 N.W.2d 384 (Iowa 2015).  In Pardee, the officer had detained the occupants of the vehicle stopped for a traffic violation for approximately 25 minutes, longer than the occupants in Rodriguez.  In Pardee, however, the State argued that the delay was legal because the officer had developed “reasonable suspicion” that the occupants were engaged in criminal activity. The State argued that the California license plates, the occupants’ behavior before the trooper pulled over the vehicle, the nervousness of the occupants after the trooper stopped the vehicle, the lived-in look of the vehicle, the presence of a can of air freshener and the strong odor of air freshener, the criminal histories of the occupants, and finally their curious and somewhat inconsistent travel plans constituted enough suspicion of criminal activity to detain them for a drug dog sniff.

The Iowa Supreme Court examined several cases dealing with reasonable suspicion in its opinion.  The Court went on to discuss the factors cited by the State, but ultimately didn’t decide the issue of what constitutes “reasonable suspicion.”  Instead, the Court found that the officer had illegally prolonged the stop and excluded the evidence uncovered after the dog sniff.

What if the officer gives me my ticket or warning and all my paperwork back and then asks if I would mind answering a few additional questions?  Should I just answer his questions?

Bad idea. At that point you are (or should be) free to leave and you should do so.  If you find yourself in the situation of being stopped for a traffic violation and the officer wants to search your vehicle, asks you to allow him to run a dog around the vehicle, asks you to wait for his partner to show up with the dog, or asks if you would voluntarily answer a few more questions, you should politely decline and ask the officer if you can go on your way.

There are important questions to answer in every traffic stop case that turns into a drug investigation. How long is too long to process a traffic ticket? If the stop was too long, did the officer develop reasonable suspicion to detain the occupants of the vehicle? Is that dog even certified or trained properly to detect drugs? These questions often turn on the facts of the specific case.  Many traffic/drug stops involve complicated legal issues; GRL’s criminal defense team has the knowledge and experience to skillfully litigate and defend these cases.   If you ever find yourself the subject of a traffic stop that has morphed into a drug investigation, contact the attorneys at GRL Law to seek representation in your case.