You Should Have Been Free To Leave, Mr. Rodriguez

By | June 4, 2015

I’ve got an iPhone and android app that will help you avoid getting arrested and teach you some rules on what to do if you are pulled over.

And it’s that second topic of what to do if you are pulled over that I want to focus on today. This is what the top part of the homepage of my app looks like.

ATX-DWI-Mobile-App

It is no coincidence that just below my name, you can click on “12 Rules for Dealing with Police.” The third rule is “Politely tell the officer that you wish to leave. If you are not allowed to leave, ask to speak to an attorney immediately.”

A recent United States Supreme Court case underscores the reason for that rule. That case is Rodriguez v. United States, No. 13-9972, (April 21, 2015).

A little after midnight on March 27, 2012 a police officer named Morgan Struble saw Dennys Rodriguez veer slowly onto the shoulder of a Nebraska state highway for 1 or 2 seconds and then jerk back onto the road. It’s illegal to drive on highway shoulders in Nebraska and so officer Struble pulled Mr. Rodriguez over. Officer Struble walked up to Mr. Rodriguez’s driver-side window and identified himself and then asked why Rodriguez had driven onto the shoulder. Rodriguez said he had swerved to avoid a pothole. Officer Struble then got Mr. Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, and asked Mr. Rodriguez to come with him to the patrol car. Mr. Rodriguez asked if he was required to do so and officer Struble said “no.” Mr. Rodriguez decided to wait in his own car.

Officer Struble then ran a records check on Mr. Rodriguez and on his passenger. Eventually, officer Struble wrote a warning ticket for Mr. Rodriguez and went back to Mr. Rodriguez’s vehicle to issue the written warning. At that point, officer Struble had taken care of all the business of returning the documents and getting a copy of the written warning.

Nonetheless, Struble did not consider Rodriguez free to leave. Although the justification for the traffic stop was out of the way, Struble asked for permission to walk his dog around Mr. Rodriguez’s vehicle. Rodriguez declined.

Officer Struble then instructed Mr. Rodriguez to turn off the ignition, get out of the car, and stand in front of the patrol car to wait for another officer.

Roughly 7-8 minutes later another officer arrived with a dog. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs and a large bag of methamphetamine was found.

The United States Supreme Court decided to hear this case to decide whether police routinely may extend and otherwise completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, to conduct a dog sniff.

The answer is no.

The purpose of collecting a driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance is ordinary routine police work to ensure that vehicles are operated safely and responsibly.

A dog sniff, on the other hand, is aimed at detecting evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing.

Because it does not have the same close connection to roadway safety as the ordinary inquiries for driver’s license and so on, a dog sniff is not fairly characterized as part of an officer’s traffic mission.

How does this relate to your asking to leave?

The way it relates to your asking to leave is that if the officer refuses to let you go, and doesn’t have a good reason for refusing to let you go, then he is unreasonably prolonging the detention.

United States Supreme Court is clear about this: if the reason for pulling you over was related to roadway safety, then the officer needs to finish the job with regard to roadway safety and if he has no further reasonable suspicion, then the officer is supposed to let you go. Even delaying you for 7 or 8 minutes is too long. Asking to leave means that the police in Austin, Texas will have an audio recording of you saying you want to go. If they’ve finished with their roadway enforcement business, then they need to be able to articulate what the reason was why they still had reasonable suspicion. If they can’t articulate that, then they have unreasonably prolonged the detention.

If you need legal advice on a traffic stop that led to an arrest for a criminal act, call my office to schedule a free consultation. I will discuss the details of your case as it truly relates to the law.