The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects every person in the United States from “unreasonable” seizures and searches by the government. One frequently-used law enforcement tool that may sometimes violate our Fourth Amendment rights is the drug dog.

When can a drug dog be used at a traffic stop? If you’re placed under arrest on the basis of a search conducted because of a drug dog, what are your rights? Can a Long Beach drug crimes lawyer challenge evidence that was discovered because of a drug dog, or are criminal convictions almost certain in these cases?

You are about to learn the answers to those questions and more in this brief discussion of drug dogs, traffic stops, and your rights. You will also learn where you can turn for help if you are charged with a drug crime in this state as the result of a search conducted because of a drug dog.

WHAT DO THE COURTS SAY ABOUT DRUG DOGS AND TRAFFIC STOPS?

The basic legal rule for the use of drug dogs by law enforcement officers at traffic stops was established by the United States Supreme Court in the 2005 case Illinois v. Caballes.

us law about search

Here is how that case developed. When Illinois State Trooper Daniel Gillette stopped a motorist named Roy Caballes for speeding in 1998, his fellow State Trooper Craig Graham heard the report on his radio and took his drug dog to the scene of the traffic stop.

The drug dog detected marijuana in the trunk of Caballes’ new Mercury. The troopers found a large quantity of pot and placed Caballes under arrest. The entire incident lasted about ten minutes.

Caballes was sentenced to twelve years in prison. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed his conviction and determined that the state troopers had turned a typical traffic stop into a crime investigation without “specific and articulable facts” indicating that a crime had been committed.

WHAT QUESTION DID THE U.S. SUPREME COURT RESOLVE?

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to resolve this question: Is the use of a drug dog at a routine traffic stop a violation of the motorist’s Fourth Amendment rights?

After hearing the arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court justices (by a 6-to-2 margin) overturned the Illinois Supreme Court’s reversal of Caballes’ conviction.

The highest U.S. court held that a motorist’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated by the use of a drug-sniffing dog at a typical traffic stop – provided that the drug dog’s use by the police officers does not “unreasonably” prolong the length of the traffic stop.

HOW DO THE COURTS DEFINE A SEARCH?

Furthermore, mere “sniffing” by a drug dog as part of a lawful traffic stop does not constitute a “search,” according to the U.S. Supreme Court, and motorists do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” when they are carrying illegal drugs in a vehicle.

Quite honestly, since the Caballes decision, some police departments specifically use drug dogs to uncover illegal drugs that they otherwise would be prevented from finding due to the Fourth Amendment.

drug dogs

While police officers usually need to obtain a search warrant to search a vehicle, a positive reaction by a drug dog gives the police “probable cause” to conduct a search without first obtaining a search warrant.

WHAT RULES APPLY WHEN DRUG DOGS ARE USED?

Nevertheless, there are some very specific rules and guidelines that law enforcement officers must adhere to whenever a drug dog is used at a traffic stop.

An officer cannot make a traffic stop unless he observes a crime or has a “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has been or is being committed. Officers cannot “unreasonably” delay a motorist – again, unless the officers have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed.

For example, an officer cannot summon a drug dog unit to a traffic stop and then ask a motorist to wait for the unit’s arrival after all other activity and business related to the traffic stop has been concluded.

HOW LONG CAN YOU BE DETAINED AT A TRAFFIC STOP?

Unless the police have “reasonable suspicion” of a crime, it is unconstitutional to extend a legal traffic stop in order to bring a drug dog to the scene.

police search

In other words, if the police are otherwise finished with you before a drug dog unit can arrive, you cannot legally be detained or asked to continue waiting. Moreover, a drug dog may not continue to sniff a vehicle beyond the time that is needed to otherwise conclude the traffic stop.

However, while conducting a traffic stop, if a police officer develops a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or is being committed, the police officer may detain the motorist for a “reasonable” amount of time.

WHEN WILL EVIDENCE FROM A TRAFFIC STOP BE SUPPRESSED?

Still, if a court determines that the police, in fact, had no reasonable suspicion to justify delaying a motorist, but the motorist was nevertheless delayed, any evidence uncovered as a result of that delay will be suppressed, meaning that it cannot be used against that motorist in court.

For California law enforcement officers, the odor of marijuana alone is no longer sufficient to constitute probable cause to conduct a search at a traffic stop, because the marijuana may not be illegal – at least under California law.

However, if you are stopped by federal law enforcement officers – the DEA or the FBI, for example – it is important to remember that federal law continues entirely to prohibit all cannabis possession and use.

WHEN SHOULD YOU CONTACT A CRIMINAL DEFENSE LAW FIRM IN CA?

If you are placed in custody for a drug law violation in southern California, it is imperative to be advised and represented by a Long Beach criminal defense attorney who has abundant experience – and a record of success – representing clients who are charged with:

  • possessing illegal drugs
  • selling or intending to sell illegal drugs
  • manufacturing, trafficking, or cultivating illegal drugs

California’s drug laws are complicated and constantly changing. If you are charged with a drug crime because the police claim that a drug dog provided them with “probable cause” to conduct a search of your home or vehicle, you must be represented by an attorney as quickly as possible.

court columns

If you’re charged with any crime, you have the right to a good defense lawyer’s help. Don’t take chances with your freedom and your future. If you’re taken into custody, exercise your rights and reach out to an experienced Long Beach criminal defense attorney – as quickly as possible.