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How long can the police stop you for a traffic ticket?

At some point, most of us have been stopped by law enforcement for a traffic infraction

(see this post on what to say to the police). The traffic stop is the probably the most common kind of encounter between a citizen and law enforcement. When, where, and for how long the police can stop you depends on a simple legal principle. Police conduct must be reasonable. But a recent Supreme Court case shows that even a simple principle can get complicated very simply.

The U.S. Supreme Court considered how long the police can hold you for a traffic stop in the 2015 case Rodriguez v. United States. In that case, Rodriguez was driving his vehicle on the highway, when he swerved on to the shoulder to miss a pothole. An officer saw him swerve on to the shoulder and stopped him. The officer gave him a warning for the traffic violation and checked his driver’s license and registration. Everything was in order.

After the officer wrote the ticket, the original purpose for the police stop was complete. However, the officer asked Rodriguez if he would let the officer to walk a drug dog around his vehicle. Rodriguez said no, at which point the officer ordered Rodriguez out of the vehicle. The officer then walked a drug dog around the vehicle. The drug dog alerted. When the officer searched the vehicle he found methamphetamine. The whole process took 7-8 minutes after the officer ordered Rodriguez out of his vehicle.

Rodriguez argued that the police officer unlawfully held him to conduct the drug dog search. The prosecutor argued that holding Rodriguez for a few minutes was only a slight inconvenience, and didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

The trial court and 8th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, but the Supreme Court reversed. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority said,

A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, therefore, “becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission” of issuing a ticket for the violation.

What exactly does this mean? It means that the police have to let you go after they complete writing the ticket. If the officer completes the ticket, and then asks you if he can search your vehicle, you can say no. You can leave. They can’t keep you there just to search your stuff. Even if you “don’t have anything to hide,” why let the officer rip your vehicle apart?

Some recent decisions from the Supreme Court have been bad for civil liberties (see this post on whether the cops even have to know the laws they’re enforcing), but this is a good decision. The government can’t hold you for no reason.


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