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Nebraska traffic-stop case heard by justices

Nebraska traffic-stop case heard by justices

Defense argues officers can't make a driver wait for a drug dog after a ticket or warning is issued

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The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday from a Nebraska public defender challenging the length of time that officers can hold drivers during traffic stops involving drug-sniffing dogs.

Shannon O'Connor, a federal public defender in Nebraska, told justices that his client, Dennys Rodriguez, should not have been held after officers issued him a written warning.

O'Connor argued that a traffic stop ends when an officer issues a ticket or warning and that the stopped individual should then be allowed to leave.

Justice Samuel Alito said following O'Connor's logic could encourage police to simply delay the issuance of tickets.

"Every police officer other than those who are uninformed or incompetent will delay the handing over of the ticket until the dog sniff is completed,"

Alito said. "What does that accomplish?"

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed, saying: "Well, then the police can just say, I'm going to defer that a few minutes until the dog sniff occurs. It just seems that you're not going to accomplish any protection for individuals."

Police pulled Rodriguez over in 2012 near Valley after his car swerved onto the shoulder lane. Rodriguez told the officer that he jerked the wheel to miss a pothole.

About 21 minutes into the traffic stop, the officer issued a written warning. The officer then asked if he could walk a drug dog around Rodriguez's vehicle. Rodriguez said no.

The officer ordered Rodriguez to get out of his car while the officer waited for backup.

The officer walked his dog around Rodriguez's car. The dog indicated the presence of drugs eight minutes, at most, after Rodriguez had been issued a warning, court records show.

Officers searched the vehicle and discovered a large bag of meth. Rodriguez pleaded guilty to possessing meth. He later appealed his conviction, arguing that he experienced unreasonable search and seizure, violating the Fourth Amendment.

Two previously decided cases ruled that traffic stops can't be prolonged more than the time reasonably required to complete the stop.

Ginger Anders, a Justice Department attorney, said dog sniffs can prolong some traffic stops, but for good reason, including officer safety. She said the department thinks officers should have some leeway "to sequence the stop as they see fit."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Anders if police should be able to search for drugs by using dogs whenever an individual is stopped. Anders said no, dog sniffs require probable cause.

"I do think that just because a dog sniff prolongs the traffic stop by some, you know, incremental amount of time doesn't mean that the stop is per se unreasonable," Anders said.

This is the first time the Nebraska Federal Public Defender's Office has argued at the Supreme Court. Arguments lasted an hour. The court opinion will be announced later this year.

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