What’s that Smell? Drug Dogs and the 4th Amendment

2975787100_41b22d1bc9The 2005 Supreme Court case of Illinois v. Caballes established the framework for current dog sniff search and seizure laws. In this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that police do not need reasonable suspicion to use drug dogs to sniff a vehicle during a legitimate traffic stop.

Justice Stevens wrote the Opinion of the Court, finding that since dog sniffs only identify the presence of illegal items, in which citizens have no legitimate privacy interest, the Fourth Amendment does not apply to their use.  This logic would no longer apply to states such as Colorado and Washington, but because marijuana is still illegal in Virginia, it still applies here.

Illinois v. Caballes gave police the right to walk a drug dog around the vehicle during any legitimate traffic stop. If the dog signals that it smells drugs, police then have probable cause to conduct a search.

However, the big caveat is that the ruling did not allow police to detain a suspect indefinitely until a dog arrives. The legitimacy of the traffic stop depends on its duration. The argument is that if police can’t bring a dog to the scene in the time it takes to investigate the reason they stopped you, run your tags, and write a ticket, the use of the dog becomes constitutionally suspect.

In the 2013 case Florida v. Harris, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously 9-0 that a drug dog alert constitutes probable cause for a search. The dog’s certification and continued training are adequate indication of his reliability, and thus it is sufficient to presume the dog’s alert provides probable cause to search, using the “totality-of-the-circumstances” test.

The Court rejected adopting a long checklist of qualifications a drug dog must pass to be “reliable”. They rejected the lower court’s rigid requirement that police officers show evidence of a dog’s reliability in the field to prove probable cause.

Basically, a dog’s alert is enough for probable cause if the dog has been certified after testing his reliability in a controlled setting, or if the dog has recently and successfully completed a training program that evaluated his proficiency

The recent April 2015 decision of the Court in Rodriguez v. United States further clarified the court’s stance on the policy that was established in Caballes.  The court ruled 6-3 that police cannot prolong a routine traffic stop to allow a drug-sniffing dog to search the vehicle unless they have a reasonable suspicion of uncovering contraband.  In the case, police walked a drug dog around the car after the conclusion of a 22 minute traffic stop for swerving off the highway.  The dog alerted on a bag of methamphetamine in the back seat.

The Court held that this search was unconstitutional. The decision gave the public further protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.  “We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

Under this new ruling, police cannot conduct a dog sniff after the conclusion of a traffic stop without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

If you have been charged with a crime involving a drug dog search or any other unreasonable search and seizure, please call the criminal lawyers at Winslow & McCurry at 804-423-1382.