Legal Magazine

New U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Helps Show That Traffic Stop Leading to My Incarceration Was Unconstitutional

Posted on the 22 April 2015 by Rogershuler @RogerShuler

New U.S. Supreme Court ruling helps show that traffic stop leading to my incarceration was unconstitutionalA U.S. Supreme Court ruling yesterday adds to the body of law that shows my wife and I were subjected to an unlawful traffic stop in the Rob Riley/Liberty Duke lawsuit that led to my five-month incarceration. The new ruling also adds to the law showing I never was lawfully served with the Riley/Duke complaint, meaning the court had no jurisdiction over me--as I argued in a court filing prior to my arrest and during a hearing after my arrest.
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.
That means Shelby County deputy Mike DeHart violated the Fourth Amendment when he prolonged a traffic stop at the North Shelby County Library in order to serve me with court papers in the Riley/Duke complaint. That means service was unlawful, and I lost five months of my freedom because of a ruling from a court that had no jurisdiction over me.
We recently received documents from the court file showing that DeHart admitted his traffic stop, on September 29, 2013, was a "pretext" stop--meaning the real reason he stopped me was to deliver the court papers and not because of any alleged traffic violation. That strongly suggests DeHart's "pretext" reason for stopping me--that I had rolled through a stop sign--is false. If that's the case, the traffic stop was unlawful from beginning to end, and the Shelby County Sheriff's Office has stepped in some serious constitutional doo-doo. (More on DeHart's admitted "pretext" stop in an upcoming post.)
The Rodriguez ruling does not change the law as it relates to our encounter with DeHart. It just affirms a legal precedent under slightly different facts than the high court has addressed before. In other words, DeHart's stop already was unlawful--it's even more unlawful as of yesterday.
As we stated in a post on October 16, 2013--just one week before my arrest--the law already was clear that prolonged traffic stops are illegal, in the absence of reasonable suspicion regarding criminal activity connected to the vehicle. Even DeHart never made the slightest hint that criminal activity was associated with our car. The following paragraph sums up the law as it stood before yesterday's Rodriguez opinion:
Ordinarily, when a citation or warning has been issued and all record checks have been completed and come back clean, the legitimate investigative purpose of the traffic stop is fulfilled. United States v. Simms, 385 F.3d 1347, 1353 (11th Cir., 2004)

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.
Our encounter with DeHart did not involve a drug-sniffing dog or anything else remotely related to an alleged crime. But yesterday's Rodriguez ruling drives home a legal principle that already had been clear in Simms and 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.

In our case, the issue wasn't a dog sniff, but court papers--which DeHart handed me after giving me the traffic warning and returning my traffic-related documents. And his actions unquestionably added time to the stop. In the words of Ginsburg, DeHart's "authority for the seizure" ended the moment his traffic-related tasks were completed.
A trial judge in the Rodriquez case found that the dog sniff extended the stop by only "seven or eight minutes," and thus was a de minimis intrusion that is permissible by law. But the SCOTUS majority disagreed, saying an extension of any duration is unlawful, in the absence of reasonable suspicion regarding criminal activity. Wrote Ginsburg:
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.

Even before yesterday's ruling, DeHart was required to let us depart once his traffic-related tasks were completed. Rodriguez drives home the fact that an extension of the stop, even a brief one, was unlawful.

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog