Drug Dog & Vehicle Stops

I handle a lot of drug dog cases.

These drug dog cases feature one frequent scenario:  A police officer who stops a motorist for a minor traffic infraction. A drug-sniffing dog shows up. The officer leads the dog around the vehicle. The drug dog “alerts.” Drugs are discovered. The driver and his passengers are in big trouble.

Beyond determining whether to issue a traffic ticket, the officer’s legitimate mission includes ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop. Typically, the officer checks the driver’s license to determine whether there are outstanding warrants and examines the registration and proof of insurance. This usually takes five to twenty minutes.

The rule is 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.” That is the holding from the Supreme Court’s April ruling in Rodriguez v. United States.

Rodriguez was stopped at 12:06 a.m. The officer finished his legitimate mission at 12:27 a.m. but did not let Rodriguez go. At 12:33 a.m. another deputy showed up and the first officer retrieved his dog and led him twice around the vehicle. The dog “alerted” to the presence of drugs and Rodriguez was indicted for possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of methamphetamine.

Justice Ginsburg explained, “the critical question is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff prolongs the stop.”

Even in cases where officers have not illegally detained motorists, drug dog cases are difficult.  A dog cannot be cross-examined. The police officer-handler will usually testify about how his drug dog attended training courses and was “certified.”  The dog may be as good as his handler says but the dog’s training records need to be examined.  Often these records are scant and give no indication what the training entailed or how the dog was tested, or if the drug dog alerted on “false positives.”  It is often necessary for the attorney to hire an expert.