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Supreme Court Curtails Use of Drug Sniffing Dogs

Posted on in Drug Crimes

drug sniffing dog, McHenry County Criminal defense attorneyThe Supreme Court commonly struggles with striking a balance between citizens' rights to privacy and the police's ability to effectively enforce the law. This delicate balance commonly arises in cases where the court is interpreting the Fourth Amendment, which gives citizens the right to be safe from “unreasonable” searches and seizures on the part of law enforcement officers.

The Court recently decided such a case in Rodriguez v. U.S. Rodriguez relates to the use of drug sniffing dogs during traffic stops. In the decision, the Court placed serious limitations on the police's ability to use dogs during routine traffic stops.

The Rodriguez Case

The traffic stop that the Rodriguez case centers on occurred around midnight in Nebraska. The officer conducting the stop, Officer Struble, watched Rodriguez swerve onto the shoulder of a road for a few seconds before returning to the original lane lane—a violation of Nebraska traffic laws. Struble pulled Rodriguez over, and asked why he had swerved. Rodriguez responded that he was merely avoiding a pothole in the road.

During the stop, Struble took Rodriguez's license and registration, and interrogated him as to the reasons for his trip. He also checked the computer for any flags on Rodriguez, his car, or his passenger. However, the computer returned none.

After writing Rodriguez a warning ticket for driving on the shoulder, Struble asked if Rodriguez would consent to have a drug sniffing dog inspect the vehicle. Rodriguez refused, but Struble conducted the search anyway. Importantly, Struble, despite being a K-9 officer and having a dog present, waited seven to 10 minutes for backup to arrive before walking the dog around the car. The dog alerted the officers to the presence of drugs, and upon searching the car they found methamphetamine.

Fourth Amendment Issues

Rodriguez contended that the use of the drug dog violated his Fourth Amendment rights because it prolonged the traffic stop, while Struble waited for backup to arrive. The lower courts did not find this argument persuasive, holding that a 10-minute extension was too short to constitute a violation. The Supreme Court disagreed.

The Court decided, six to three, that the length of the extra detention is not what matters. A violation arises when an officer extends a traffic stop to conduct a suspicion-less search.

This holding will have a serious impact on the way that police officers use drug sniffing dogs during traffic stops. Previously, a delay of five to 10 minutes waiting for backup or a K-9 unit was not uncommon. This will likely necessitate changes to how the police deploy these units.

The line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior by the police is in constant flux. If you are charged with a crime and believe that the police may have crossed that line, contact a skilled McHenry County criminal defense attorney today.

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