Monday, September 21, 2020

In a case about a relatively mundane matter -- the extension of traffic stops -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed why she was a champion for everyday folks

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The next time you experience a traffic stop, you should know that the officer cannot extend the stop beyond the time it takes to tend to traffic matters -- unless he has reasonable suspicion of criminal activity related to your vehicle. In other words, he must follow strict guidelines, set down by the nation's highest court, if he wants the stop to stay within the law. For that, we largely can thank Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Since her death was announced last Friday, Ginsburg has been mourned by those on the left -- and others who care deeply about civil rights. Her name also has become part of a political parlor game driven by bipartisan speculation about who will replace her on the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). That's too bad because Ginsburg should be remembered as an example of the good that can come when someone with a sharp mind, a good heart, and the ability to write with clarity and conviction helps shape our nation's laws and values. 

Ginsburg was known for standing up for the powerless against the powerful -- as usually is the case in a traffic stop.  A classic example was a case styled Rodriguez v. United States (2014). It was not a monumental case for which Ginsburg long will be remembered, but her majority opinion showed her clear-minded, balanced thinking on an everyday issue that affects millions of Americans. We spotlighted the case in an April 2015 post:

In Rodriguez v. United States, SCOTUS found that a stop prolonged beyond the time for an officer to complete his traffic-based inquiries is "unlawful," especially where there is no reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity connected to the vehicle. The majority opinion, written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, says even a brief extension of a stop, once a citation or warning is given and traffic-related documents are returned, runs afoul of the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizures. . . . 

The Rodriguez ruling does not change the law as it relates to [many traffic stops]. It just affirms a legal precedent under slightly different facts than the high court has addressed before. . . .

What element did Rodriguez add to the equation? A Nebraska officer had prolonged a traffic stop of Dennys Rodriguez in order to walk a drug-sniffing dog around the car. Given that it was unclear whether the officer had reasonable suspicion of a crime, SCOTUS found that extension of the stop violated the Fourth Amendment.

 The Rodriguez ruling drives home a legal principle that already had been clear in  numerous other cases. Here, in the words of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is the fundamental finding in Rodriguez (citations omitted):

Authority for the seizure ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been completed. The Fourth Amendment may tolerate certain unrelated investigations that do not lengthen the roadside detention . . . but a traffic stop “become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of issuing a warning ticket. . . .

The Government’s argument that an officer who completes all traffic-related tasks expeditiously should earn extra time to pursue an unrelated criminal investigation is unpersuasive, for a traffic stop “prolonged beyond” the time in fact needed for the officer to complete his traffic-based inquiries is “unlawful. . . . ” The critical question is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff adds time to the stop.

    Notice how Ginsburg states -- gently, but firmly -- that the government's arguments for extended            stops were so much dog poop. Why did Rodriguez matter? Ginsburg makes it clear:

We granted certiorari to resolve a division among lower courts on the question whether police routinely may extend an otherwise-completed traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion, in order to conduct a dog sniff. . . . Without additional reasonable suspicion, the officer must allow the seized person to depart once the purpose of the stop has concluded.

    Perhaps more than anything, Rodriguez shows just how much Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be missed.

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