Today marks the 21st anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Ohio v. Robinette. Ohio v. Robinette stands for the simple proposition that the 4th amendment does not require police officers to inform drivers in a traffic stop that they are free to go before asking questions unrelated to the purpose of the traffic stop.
The case behind Ohio v. Robinette is relatively mundane. On a stretch of I70 near Dayton Ohio, Robert D. Robinette was pulled over for a traffic stop on August 3, 1993. Mr. Robinette was issued a warning for speeding. The officer then asked “One more question before you get gone: Are you carrying any illegal contraband in your car? Any Weapons of any kind, drugs, anything like that?”. Mr. Robertte responded “no”. The officer then asked if he could search the car, which Mr. Robinette consented to. The officer subsequently found a small amount of marijuana, and a single pill of ecstasy. Mr. Robinette was arrested and charged for possession of controlled substance.
Before trial Mr. Robinette sought to have the evidence from the search excluded arguing that the Ohio Constitution, and the Federal Constitution mandated the suppression of the evidence because his detention had been unreasonable. The trial court rejected the argument and Mr. Robinette plead “no contest”. Mr. Robinette then appealed the ruling, and had his conviction revered by the Ohio Court of Appeals, and affirmed by the Ohio Supreme Court. The Ohio Supreme Court issues a ruling holding that the Ohio Constitution, and the Federal Constitution mandated that an officer clearly inform a suspect in a traffic stop that they are free to go after finishing the purpose of the traffic stop to be reasonable. The State appealed this ruling, sought a writ of certiorari, and the Supreme Court granted cert in early 1996.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on October 8th, 1996. The State argued that the 4th amendment of the Constitution only requires that seizures, in the form of traffic stops be reasonable. The State contended that because the traffic stop had been legal, the detention was reasonable under the 4th amendment, after the stop was finished, it was not unreasonable to ask the suspect for consent to search the car. The State also relied on precedent of Florida v. Royer which expressly rejected bright line rules regarding reasonableness under the 4th amendment.
Mr. Robinette argued that the Supreme Court was improperly hearing the case because his conviction had been set aside on the basis of the Ohio Constitution, rather than the Federal Constitution. Thus Mr. Robinette argued that he had adequate independent state grounds for overturning his conviction. Mr. Robinette then argued that the search had been unreasonable under the 4th amendment.
The Supreme Court rendered its judgment on November 18th, 1996. In an 8 – 1 decision, the majority led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist reversed the Ohio Supreme Court. The Court rejected Mr. Robinette’s claim that he had adequate independent state grounds for reversing his conviction because he failed to argue the point at the correct time in the certiorari process. The Court then concluded that prior precedent mandated the court reverse bright line rules regarding the test for reasonableness under the 4th amendment. The Court finally concluded that Mr. Robinette was lawfully detained, his consent was voluntary, and the search of his car was reasonable under the 4th amendment. Thus, the Court reversed the Ohio Supreme Court and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The notorious Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote her own concurring opinion to the case. Justice Ginsburg stressed that the holding only applied to the 4th amendment, and that the Ohio Supreme Court was free to adopt the rule they had articulated for their state Constitution.
Justice Paul Stevens made up the only dissent. Justice Stevens argued that initial traffic stop had been illegal, and thus the fruits of the stop should be suppressed. Justice Stevens also reasoned that even if the stop had been legal, a reasonable person would not feel free to leave if a police officer was asking them questions after a traffic stop had been conducted.
With the Courts judgment entered, the totality of the circumstances test for reasonableness under the 4th amendment remained intact. It remains a general rule of thumb that one should never consent to a search of a vehicle when at all possible. It is further advisable to confirm that you are free to go after a traffic stop had been concluded. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can ensure your rights are protected.
Written by Hunter J. White
 Ohio v. Robinette, 519 U.S. 33, 117 S. Ct. 417 (1996)
 Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 103 S. Ct. 1319 (1983)