Police Dog Drug Sniffs in Traffic Stops: New Time Limits

Police K-9 in Patrol Car

In April 2015, the United States Supreme Court made a decision that significantly changed the constitutional Fourth Amendment-based rules that apply to K9 drug searches — or police dog drug sniffs — conducted by police during a traffic stop. The case, Rodriguez v. United States, reversed long-standing rules in North Carolina and throughout the country that generally permitted drug dog searches incident to a traffic stop.

In the wake of a significant Supreme Court decision like Rodriguez, even though the new rule is in effect immediately, it takes time for the new rule to be reflected in state appellate court decisions. Now, two years after Rodriguez, there have been a number of cases in which North Carolina courts have applied the new rule for police dog drug sniffs. In addition, a number of cases are still pending before North Carolina appellate courts and will provide further clarification.

The United States Supreme Court Case

One night around midnight, a Nebraska police officer stopped a car for violating the state’s law against driving on the shoulder of a highway. After checking the vehicle registration as well as the driver’s licenses of both the driver and passenger, the officer conducted a warrant check. He returned all the documents and issued a warning ticket. The officer then asked the driver to consent to having the officer walk his drug dog around the car. The driver declined. The officer told the driver to turn off the ignition and leave the vehicle and called for a second vehicle. After the second officer arrived, the first officer took the dog around the car, and the dog alerted to the presence of drugs. The police found methamphetamine in the car during the subsequent search. About seven or eight minutes’ time elapsed between the officer's giving the driver the warning and the dog's alerting to drugs.

The Supreme Court acknowledged that during a traffic stop, police officers are permitted to make ordinary inquiries related to the stop in addition to determining whether to issue a citation. Those inquiries include checking the driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance documents as well as determining whether there are any outstanding warrants for the driver. Those activities are related to the reasons for the stop: enforcement of traffic laws and ensuring safety on the road. However, the Court ruled that an officer cannot constitutionally extend the time required for completing the stop for any period of time—no matter how brief—to conduct a dog sniff in the absence of consent or a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The result of the case is a new rule for traffic stops: If police extend or prolong a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff in the absence of consent or a factual basis for the officer to reasonably suspect criminal activity, the drug dog sniffs is an unconstitutional search.

Impact of the Case on North Carolina Law

Before Rodriguez, North Carolina courts, like many courts in the country, allowed an officer to prolong a traffic stop to conduct a dog sniff on the basis that the delay was an insignificant intrusion. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, on the basis that a dog sniff to detect evidence of criminal activity unrelated to the traffic stop is not part of a police officer’s traffic mission. However, the Court made it clear if a dog sniff or other non-traffic related activity does not prolong the stop, then the dog sniff or other activity is permissible under the Fourth Amendment, a rule that the Supreme Court had established in earlier cases.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals already has applied the new rule from Rodriguez in a number of cases, and more are pending. In some cases, the appellate court found there was a reasonable suspicion basis for extending a traffic stop and conducting a search or dog sniff; in others, the appellate court found no reasonable suspicion basis for extending the traffic stop.

Several cases are on appeal to or awaiting acceptance by the North Carolina Supreme Court as well. In addition, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court that hears appeals from North Carolina federal district courts, has ruled on at least one case involving the Rodriguez case.

New Time Limits on Traffic Stops

Several conclusions follow from the Rodriguez case and the North Carolina cases that have applied it:

There is a new time limit on traffic stops: The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure prohibits police officers from prolonging a traffic stop to conduct a drug dog sniff in the absence of consent or the existence of facts that create a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Application of the new rule is fact-based: The outcome of applying the Rodriguez rule in a specific case will turn entirely on the facts of the individual case. In the absence of consent to a search of a vehicle or person, the question the court will decide is whether the facts are sufficient to constitute reasonable suspicion of criminal activity on the part of the police officer before the dog sniff takes place.

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