Criminal Law

Canine Sniff During a Traffic Stop

Before asking the question of whether police officers could lawfully have a police dog sniff your vehicle, you should ask whether the officers' stop of your vehicle was lawful.

A police officer may stop a vehicle if the officer has a reasonable suspicion to believe that a motorist is committing or has committed a traffic violation. An officer typically obtains reasonable suspicion for a traffic violation by personally watching the driver commit a violation.

A police officer may also stop a vehicle if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that a suspect is committing, is about to commit, or has committed a crime. For the stop to be legal, the officer must be able to state specific facts that support the suspicion.

What Police May Do During a Stop

Once police officers have lawfully stopped a car, either because of a civil traffic violation or because of a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, officers may do the following without any additional showings of suspicion or cause:

  • Order both the driver and passengers out of the car
  • Demand the driver's license, registration card and other relevant documents, such as an insurance card
  • Conduct a limited search to gain access to the vehicle identification number (VIN)
  • Conduct a dog sniff, so long as the sniff does not extend the length of the stop

To proceed beyond these acts, the officers must have cause or suspicion beyond the reason or suspicion that initially justified the stop.

During a lawful stop, officers may take actions reasonably related to the original reason for stopping the vehicle or related to suspicions that arise during the stop. For example:

  • To conduct a frisk, the officer must show not only a justification for the original stop, but also a reasonable suspicion that the suspect was armed and dangerous.
  • To justify a search of the vehicle, the stop must provide probable cause for the officers to believe it contains contraband

The officers may take some of the actions above automatically, but the officers will need more than the original justification for the stop to take other actions.

Dog Sniff During a Traffic Stop

An officer may stop a car for a traffic violation and then have a drug sniffing dog sniff the outside of the car for drugs. The officer does not need probable cause or even a reasonable suspicion that the car is engaged in dealing in illegal drugs (drug trafficking). For example, if the officer stops a motorist for speeding, the officer may cause a canine sniff for drugs to take place. However, bringing in the dog to sniff around the car cannot extend the length of the stop.

If the officer lacks a reasonable suspicion of drug trafficking and yet delays the traffic stop to wait for the arrival of the drug dog, the detention is illegal. The detention becomes illegal when it continues past the time needed to complete a lawful traffic stop. If drugs are seized in an illegal detention, the person charged with possession of the drugs can request that the drugs not be allowed as evidence at trial.

It makes sense to retain an attorney if a canine sniff revealed that there were drugs in your vehicle. Your attorney will present your defenses.

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