Tuesday, June 02, 2015

And thus began the limiting of Rodriguez v. United States

It was only a little more than a month ago that the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), holding that it is unlawful for officers to prolong a traffic stop beyond the time reasonably required to complete the purpose of the stop. But anyone expecting Rodriguez to dramatically reshape the caselaw landscape for suppression litigation was bound to be disappointed. Today's Zuniga opinion --- apparently the first in the Sixth Circuit to cite Rodriguez --- suggests that the Sixth Circuit is unlikely to use Rodriguez to justify suppression in many more traffic stops than it had previously.

Mr. Zuniga was driving a truck that passed a police car and then allegedly spent too much time between lanes while merging back. This was enough to constitute an "improper or unsafe lane change" and an "improper or unsafe lane usage," which are, evidently, crimes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the traffic stop lasted longer than is normally required to issue a citation for an improper lane change. Indeed, it took thirty minutes, and it involved a dog, a drill, and a fiber-optic scope to view inside the vehicle's fuel tank. (Did we mention that Mr. Zuniga was Hispanic and driving a vehicle with out-of-state plates?) If you think this sounds a lot like the facts of Rodriguez, you're not that far off. But the Zuniga opinion's preferred method of sidestepping Rodriguez is to find that the officer was perfectly reasonable in prolonging stop because Mr. Zuniga (1) admitted to not being an undocumented immigrant, (2) took too long in pulling over, (3) acted "nervously" in speaking with officers, (4) gave inconsistent responses regarding his travel plans, and, most damningly, (5) the FBI had received some information that a vehicle matching the description of Mr. Zuniga's truck was involved in drug activity. Thus, the officer "had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop for further investigation."

This result is not entirely surprising under the facts of this case, but it suggests that the circuit courts will take a limited view Rodriguez's holding, and it certainly hints at where Rodriguez litigation will focus in the district courts.


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