Routine Traffic Stops Involving K-9 Drug Dogs

August 26, 2021 Criminal Defense, Drug Charges

Getting pulled over is already an extremely stressful situation. Spotting the red and blue lights in your rearview mirror never produces a good feeling. No one wishes to be in trouble with the law, however, these things happen. A missed stop sign, running a red light, or driving with too-dark tint on your windows. These are all valid reasons for a police officer to switch on his or her lights and pull you over. Your next step is to start pulling off on the side of the road, trying to prepare all your necessary legal documents for what’s to come.

During a routine traffic stop, there are specific requirements a police officer must follow. These standards include:

  • Checking the Driver’s Registered State License
  • Checking for the Vehicle’s Registration
  • Inspecting for the Driver’s Proof of Insurance
  • Determining if the Driver has any Outstanding Warrants
  • Writing a warning and/or ticket for the driver

The purpose of these objectives is to ensure that the vehicles on the road are operated responsibly and safely. Let’s say you get pulled over for some type of traffic violation. While the officer is following the standard procedures, you notice it is taking an extended amount of time. Next thing you know, the officer has called for backup. Another police officer arrives, along with a K-9 search dog. What do you do?

K-9 units can add unforeseen complications to routine traffic stops. As a standard, police officers cannot automatically search your vehicle once they have pulled you over. However, the lines start to blur with K-9 involvement. It is important to understand your Fourth Amendment rights and how to handle this situation.

What is the Fourth Amendment?

According to the United States Constitution, the Fourth Amendment states that a person has the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. A person shall not be violated, and no warrants shall be issued unless there is probable cause. Probable cause must be supported by an oath or affirmation which describes what needs to be searched or seized on that said person.

In basic terms, the police do not have the right to search or arrest a person without probable cause. Probable cause is established when there is reasonable belief that a crime has taken place or is currently being committed. For instance, if during a traffic stop a police officer notices a bag which looks like it contains cocaine, then probable cause is established. The Fourth Amendment is set to protect a person’s privacy, and if these rights have been violated then there is reason to argue the charges.

If the police violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights with a K-9 drug dog, that person has the right to file a motion to suppress the discovered evidence found during the violation search and seizure. If you would like to read more about the Fourth Amendment, you can do so here.

Do the Police Need my Consent to Search my Vehicle?

A police officer requires reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation to pull you over in the first place. To then search your vehicle, they need to suspect that another crime has been committed on top of the initial traffic violation. If probable cause does not exist, the police officer needs consent to search your vehicle, or to allow a K-9 drug dog to sniff outside of your vehicle. If an officer is asking for permission, it typically means there is not yet probable cause in which you can respond no. A lot of people do not realize that it is within their rights to decline permission for police to search their belongings. As soon as you answer yes to an officer asking for permission, searching your vehicle with a K-9 dog becomes legal.

K-9 Drug Dogs and When They can be Used

There are certain instances that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved of the use of drug dogs. The circumstances where police officers can use drug dogs are as follows:

Drug Dogs in the Airport

Letting a dog sniff luggage in the airport does is not considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. There is no warrant or probable cause needed by a police officer to have a drug K-9 dog sniff your belongings in an airport.

Drug Dogs in Traffic Stops

If a police officer has probable cause to search your vehicle during a traffic stop, he or she can use a drug K-9 dog to sniff around the outside of the vehicle. However, traffic stops do fall under “searches” in the Fourth Amendment so probable cause must be present to constitute a legal search.

Rodriguez v. United States Case

A common case referred to regarding traffic stops and K-9 searches is  Rodriguez v. United States. After attending to all the necessary steps of a traffic stop, and without reasonable suspicion, the police officer who pulled Rodriguez over asked for permission for his K-9 dog to sniff around his vehicle. Rodriguez refused, and the officer detained him until another police officer arrived. This extended the procedure of the initial traffic stop, and the officer had his K-9 sniff around the vehicle anyways which resulted in the evidence of drugs on Rodriguez’s person. Rodriguez was then indicted on federal drug charges. This raises the question: does the interest in drug busting override the privacy and rights of all legally detained drivers during a traffic stop? Other cases have argued that prolonging a standard traffic stop procedure to call for canine backup is violation of the Fourth Amendment. Florida courts hold that it is unlawful to have a K-9 sniff a suspect’s vehicle when there is no probable cause, or if the police officer exceeds the permissible length necessary to issue a warning or citation for the initial traffic stop.

Defense to K-9 Search at a Traffic Stop  

As previously mentioned, the prime argument to this particular case is that without reasonable suspicion, the extension of a police traffic stop to conduct a K-9 dog sniff is unconstitutional. A routine traffic stop should be more of a brief stop rather than a guaranteed arrest. The police officer’s mission is to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop, and the seizure of the driver ends once the warning or ticket relating to the traffic concern has been completed and given to the driver. Without probable cause, a K-9 dog sniffing the driver’s vehicle does not fall under the officer’s standard traffic procedure.

In addition, the issue with using drug K-9 dogs to provide probable cause are as follows:

  • Lack of Uniformity

Dogs are not trained for all illegal substances, and therefore causes issues regarding what was found or not.

  • Inaccuracy of results

One Chicago Tribune study shows that only 44% of alerts from drug K-9 dogs actually resulted in the discovery of drugs.

  • Following Leading Behavior

The more time spent around one vehicle or prolonged examination could lead to a false alert from the drug K-9 dog. In addition, dogs are still considered domesticated animals who wish to please their owner. A drug K-9 dog could potentially give an alert just to try and please the officer who handles them.

Find a Criminal Defense Attorney in Florida Today

State laws can be murky when dealing with traffic stops involving K-9 units. It is important to fully understand your rights when put into these situations. You have the right to refuse a police officer’s request of a K-9 unit search. If a police officer asks for permission to conduct a search, you can ask for the reasoning behind the request. Since the lines are a bit blurred as to when exactly it is acceptable to prolong a traffic stop and involve a K-9 unit, it is worth seeking legal representation. If you or someone you love has experienced a violation of the Fourth Amendment during a standard traffic stop, contact an experienced Tallahassee criminal defense attorney at Pumphrey Law. Call (850) 681-7777 for helpful information regarding your case today. 

General questions about being pulled over by the police? Check out our other blog posts on Navigating Miranda Rights and What to do if You Get Pulled Over.

This article was written by Karissa Key

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