How Long Can Police Detain Me to Conduct a Search?


Imagine that you are driving down the interstate and you are pulled over for a routine traffic stop. You are held by the police for 45 minutes while the officer calls in another patrol car with a drug sniffing dog.  While walking around your vehicle, the dog indicates to the odor of narcotics, leading to a full search of your entire car.  The officers then uncover evidence of a crime and arrest you.  Is this permissible under the Fourth Amendment?  Under Nebraska law, your rights may have been violated and you may be able to fight back against the search of your vehicle.

How long can the police detain you in a traffic stop?

When pulling motorists over for traffic stops, police must conduct their actions in a timely and justifiable manner. Law enforcement doesn’t have to rush through each stop, but the use of unnecessary delays as a means to establish reasonable suspicion for a search may result in such evidence being “suppressed” (ruled inadmissible in a court of law). Issues surrounding interstate searches and seizures are common in state and federal courts across the county. These cases often revolve around the concept of “reasonable suspicion.”

Reasonable suspicion is the minimum requirement necessary to warrant a search of a vehicle. This means law enforcement has the right to detain you if they justifiably believe there is criminal activity occurring or evidence pointing to past criminal activity. For example, if you smell strongly of marijuana or are exhibiting signs of impairment, the police can use these as a basis for the reasonable suspicion needed to search your vehicle. Thus, the validity of traffic stops and detentions often come down to whether law enforcement had a justifiable reason to extend a stop beyond the typical time needed to issue a warning or citation.

Unconstitutional Searches of Your Vehicle

The police cannot hold you indefinitely until they gather evidence against you. Law enforcement must have reasonable suspicion or your consent to search your vehicle. The courts have found repeatedly that being held solely for the purpose of establishing evidence despite a lack of reasonable suspicion is unconstitutional and evidence from any subsequent search can be suppressed in court.

  • Rodriquez v. United States, (2015) – In this case, the Defendant was detained for 7-8 minutes until a second officer arrived with a dog that alerted to the presence of drugs. The Court ruled that the Defendant’s Constitutional right against unreasonable seizure had been violated and that such a detention was impermissible in the absence of reasonable suspicion.
  • United States v. Cornejo – In this case, the court held a search to be unconstitutional because the Defendant was detained for more than 25 minutes while law enforcement claimed to be checking the validity of the Defendant’s driver’s license. During those 25 minutes, a drug dog was brought to the scene and indicated to the presence of narcotics. The court held that “The deputies in this case unnecessarily prolonged the stop to ask unrelated questions and conduct a K-9 sniff of the sedan without the constitutionally required independent, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.”
  • United States v. Gordon – In this case, an officer initiated a traffic stop with the Defendant for following too closely. Despite all initial paperwork and background information checking out and a lack of reasonable suspicion being present, the officer still proceeded to call for backup. 29 minutes into stop the backup officer found a firearm in a passenger’s purse. The officers detained Gordon to conduct a canine sniff, but no other contraband was discovered.  The court held that the nearly 30-minute gap between the officer obtaining necessary information to issue a ticket (Gordon’s license and registration) and the discovery of the firearm, along with statements captured on video, revealed the officer’s intention to discover other crimes despite the absence of reasonable suspicion. Evidence of the firearm was suppressed in the government’s case against the Defendant.

The main point to be drawn from these examples is law enforcement agents must have reasonably justifiable suspicions of ongoing criminal activity in order to conduct a legal search of your vehicle. Law enforcement is not allowed to conduct searches of your vehicle if it is not within the scope of the initial traffic stop, absent reasonable suspicion.

Experienced Defense Lawyers

If you think you have been charged with a crime due to law enforcement detaining you without reasonable suspicion, the dedicated defense attorneys on our team may be able to help. Contact one of the attorneys at Berry Law today at 402-466-8444 to schedule a confidential consultation.

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