Are Officers Permitted To Use Drug Sniffing Dogs At A Traffic Stop?

Under the Fourth Amendment, you have the right to protection from what the Constitution calls “unreasonable search and seizure.” However, what constitutes a “search” has long been up for debate, and officers are constantly finding new and more effective ways to find evidence that a crime likely has occurred. And this law is perhaps no more cloudy and convoluted than in DUI law.

This has become even more complex with the introduction and now widespread use of highly-trained drug-sniffing dogs, which can detect the presence of illegal substances far better than human senses could ever hope to. However, over the years many defendants and their defense attorneys have argued that the use of these animals constitutes a search, and therefore requires officers to either establish probable cause and make an arrest or obtain a search warrant. Today, drug sniffing dogs are even used in traffic stops, where a driver is helpless to defend themselves or refuse consent to this “scan” by a hyper-sensitive animal.

On this blog, we’ll explain what the law has to say about these types of searches and how you can protect and preserve your rights if you’re ever faced with one of these situations, especially in a DUI traffic stop.

Illinois v. Caballes

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision on the case of Illinois vs. Caballes where they found that the use of a drug-sniffing dog in a routine traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment so long as the use of the dog does not unreasonably prolong the length of the traffic stop.

In this case, Roy Caballes was stopped for speeding on a highway in Illinois. When the stopping officer radioed the stop in to headquarters, a member of the precinct’s drug enforcement team overheard the stop and made his way to the location nearby. Upon arriving, the officer led a drug sniffing dog over to the vehicle, who alerted police to the presence of marijuana found in the trunk. The entire incident took only roughly 10 minutes, and Caballes found himself charged with drug trafficking, for which he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

During the trial, Caballes and his defense lawyer argued that the use of the drug sniffing dog violated his right to privacy by conducting a search on his vehicle without his consent. Because he was not placed under arrest and had not consented to officers searching his vehicle, the scan by the drug sniffing dog amounted to an unjustified and therefore illegal search because it was beyond the original scope of the traffic stop. Because Caballes was initially stopped for speeding, the fact that the arresting officers went out of their way to use a drug sniffing dog to try and find evidence of a supplemental offense that was unrelated to the original stop was an overstepping of boundaries and a violation of unreasonable search and seizure.

The Supreme Court ultimately disagreed, stating the dog scan did not violate the Fourth Amendment as long as it did not unreasonably prolong the stop. The court instead argued that the police dog alerting the officers to the presence of the drug instead constituted probable cause that an offense had occurred, justifying the arrest.

Your Rights When Pulled Over

As you may have guessed, the Supreme Court decision in this case does mean officers are permitted to use a drug sniffing dog to check your car during a traffic stop if they suspect you may be carrying illegal drugs. However, they may only do so as long as getting a dog to the scene and running the scan doesn’t unreasonably delay or extend the stop.

Furthermore, officers are not permitted to pull you over without cause or reason and subject you to a drug search. Officers must have a reasonable suspicion that an offense has occurred in the first place in order to make the stop. In the case of Roy Caballes, the fact that he was speeding was undisputed—he was witnessed driving his car well in excess of the posted speed limit.

In the case of a drug-induced DUI matter, officers must witness you driving erratically or showing signs of intoxication, such as weaving in your lane, failing to go on green or stop smoothly, jerking motions behind the wheel, and many other behaviors. These are all indicators of a driver who may be intoxicated, and officers will use careful observation to see if they can confirm that reasonable suspicion. If you appear as though you may be intoxicated but officers don’t smell alcohol on your breath, this may be grounds to have your vehicle checked by a drug sniffing dog in order to establish probable cause for an arrest and search of your vehicle.

If you are subjected to a drug sniffing dog search, keep in mind that these animals are not perfect or infallible—errors in training or mistakes by handlers could lead to false positives. In fact, drug-sniffing dogs have been found in studies to sometimes make mistakes as much as 60 percent of the time.

If you’ve been arrested and charged with driving under the influence of drugs, discuss your case with a Birmingham DUI lawyer as soon as possible! Call Tidwell Law Group at (205) 536-7770 now to request a case evaluation.