Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 vote Tuesday that routine traffic stops cannot be extended for further police investigation. Reuters

After police have completed a routine traffic stop, they cannot hold you for even a few extra minutes without violating your rights, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday. In a 6-3 vote, the court said constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure prevent police agencies from extending traffic stops for additional investigation, such as the use of a drug-sniffing dog.

“We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a written ruling on behalf of the court. Justice Clarence Thomas, writing on behalf of the dissenting justices, said the court’s interpretation could blur the definitions of probable cause and reasonable suspicion for U.S. police departments.

In Rodriguez v. United States, a case brought by a Nebraska man who was pulled over for driving erratically on a state highway in 2012, the court majority said police lacked probable cause in a search that led to the man's drug charge. The man in the case, Dennys Rodriguez, had his license checked and was issued a warning for his improper driving. But then a police officer asked Rodriguez if he would consent to having a drug-sniffing dog walk around the vehicle. He refused.

The officer still held Rodriguez and told him to wait in his vehicle for “seven or eight minutes,” according to a report in the Hill, until another officer arrived with the drug-sniffing dog. Police ended up arresting Rodriguez for possession of methamphetamines and Rodriguez was indicted on federal drug charges.

But at the moment that the first officer completed the initial check, all further searches of Rodriguez's car were illegal, Ginsburg said in the ruling. The "tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’ — to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop,” she wrote. “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are — or reasonably should have been — completed.”

Thomas, along with Justices Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, argued that police should have the authority to detain people when they suspect other crimes are being committed. “Had [the police officer] arrested, handcuffed and taken Rodriguez to the police station for his traffic violation, he would have complied with the Fourth Amendment,” Thomas wrote in the dissent. “Such a view of the Fourth Amendment makes little sense.”