Drug-sniffing dogs are used by law enforcement officers more and more in criminal investigations relating to the possession of illegal drugs or explosives. These dogs are often seen in airports, public places and even at traffic stops and their sniff can lead to a felony charge and conviction. However, there remains many questions over the use of these dogs and the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unlawful searches. In a recent Supreme Court ruling, the justices provided clarification on drug dog searches and traffic stops.
The case came before the high court after a man claimed in his defense that the evidence obtained from a dog sniff violated his constitutional rights. According to the New York Times, the man was pulled over for a routine traffic violation because he drove on the shoulder of the highway. Methamphetamine was found in his vehicle after the officer’s drug dog detected the presence of drugs.
The Supreme Court examined the facts of the case and agreed that the man’s rights had been violated. The problem was that the officer had no reason to conduct the search. The traffic stop had been concluded with a written warning and the man’s license and other paperwork had been returned to him. There was no telltale smell of drugs or any other factors that would reasonably raise the officer’s suspicion. Furthermore, the man was now free to go but the officer then made the man wait several minutes until a second officer arrived and a search could be performed. This was an unlawful detainment, the justices pointed out.
In the court opinion, the justices state that had the search been performed before the officer handed the man the warning or concluded the matter, it would have been considered legal. It was the delay that led to the violation of the man’s rights. The court pointed out that a seizure “becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the tie reasonably required to complete the mission of issuing a ticket for the violation.”