In a little-noticed hearing last month, the Supreme Court considered Rodriguez v. United States, a case involving the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The core issue the justices confronted was how long a police officer could extend a routine traffic stop for purposes of calling in the dogs—drug-sniffing dogs.
At first blush, the question seems uncomplicated and slightly mundane. Who cares about police canines? The vast majority of drivers aren’t wont to be drug kingpins or to carry illegal contraband in their cars. But the Fourth Amendment doesn’t exist to protect drug traffickers; it protects everyone from police overreach. Whatever the court decides on any Fourth Amendment case—the court accepts a number of them every year—should matter to everyone.
And judging from how oral arguments in Rodriguez played out, you have reason to worry about how the justices will rule. Because for an hour, they grappled, interrupted one another, suggested potential rules, posed lengthy hypotheticals, and in the end couldn’t seem to reach any consensus on how to decide the case. Viewed charitably, the hearing was a hot mess.
The apparent confusion in the courtroom was useful in one respect: It illuminated the cluelessness of Chief Justice John Roberts when it comes to traffic stops. Addressing the lawyer who was representing Dennys Rodriguez, the petitioner in the case, Roberts said, “Usually, people have told me, when you’re stopped, the officer says, ‘License and registration.’ ”
There was laughter in the courtroom. And the lawyer, recently retired federal public defender Shannon P. O’Connor, played along and responded with humor: “I’ve had friends that say the same thing, Mr. Chief Justice.”
But to anyone who closely watches the court’s jurisprudence on the Fourth Amendment, there’s nothing funny about Roberts’ naiveté about traffic stops, let alone his ignorance of the real frustration that comes with being kept even a second longer than necessary. The “seizure” of a person, in constitutional lingo, is in fact part and parcel of all of our recent conversations about policing in America. New York’s stop-and-frisk saga, the death of Michael Brown, and incidents involving use of force by police all implicate police departments’ and courts’ interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was not amused. Later in the arguments, she turned to Roberts and said, “Chief, I’ve been stopped ... [and] keeping me past giving me the ticket is annoying as heck, whether it’s five minutes, 10 minutes, [or] 45.” She placed a lot of emphasis on the word heck.
Sotomayor knows a little something about stops, and no, it has nothing to do with her upbringing in the Bronx or the fact that she has been pulled over before. She is the only sitting justice who actually has criminal trial experience—first as a prosecutor, and later as a district judge in Manhattan. She has presided over hearings calling for the suppression of illegal evidence, over criminal trials where that evidence was later at play, in civil cases against prison officials and police officers accused of false imprisonment or the use of excessive bodily force. She has seen how the Fourth Amendment plays out in real life.
This first-hand experience may explain why she was the lone dissenter in another case involving brushes with law enforcement. In December, she and Roberts were on opposite ends in Heien v. North Carolina, a case that green-lighted reasonable “mistakes of law” as the basis for a traffic stop. Though ignorance of the law is no excuse for an average citizen under any circumstance, the Supreme Court decided that it is a valid excuse for an officer who suspects you may be committing some offense, even if the offense is not on the books.
“To be reasonable is not to be perfect,” Roberts wrote, “and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.”
Roberts’ phraseology about “fair leeway” is lofty, but it turned the meaning of the Fourth Amendment on its head, confounding its role as community protection by the government rather than from the government. And “reasonableness,” at least in the context of policing, has taken on a life of its own at the Supreme Court—leading one scholar to note that its invocation is merely a cover for the court’s “own values regarding the need for the particular police practice at issue.”
Though Roberts’ deference towards police ignorance won the day in Heien, Sotomayor did take an opportunity to remind her colleagues that the ruling will have real-life effects on those most likely to endure uncomfortable encounters with the police: minorities and communities of color. She wrote that the court’s decision has the potential of “further eroding the ... protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.” She called these the “human consequences” of the court’s rulings on the Fourth Amendment and wondered “how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening, and humiliating encounters could do so.”
Roberts, for all his intelligence, is ill-equipped to wrap his brain around that scenario; he has never been stopped by the police before. (The Supreme Court press office did not reply to a request for confirmation of Roberts’ lack of experience in this regard.) He did author a landmark ruling last year on the necessity of warrants prior to rummaging through a cellphone, but think of the factual premise: He probably does have a smartphone with extremely personal information.
Not so with close encounters with police. To assume that he and the rest of the court will issue a principled ruling on how many minutes a traffic stop can be extended—the answer, in a perfect world, should be zero—ignores that the court has already ruled constitutional far more invasive government practices, all under the guise of reasonableness, pat-downs and body-cavity searches among them.
America’s attention will turn to Obamacare and same-sex marriage when the Supreme Court entertains them later in the year. It is little cases like Rodriguez—easily lost in the news cycle—that have the greatest potential to undermine further the already-strained relationship between the community and the police.