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    Dog Sniff Searches of Cars in Pennsylvania Traffic Stops (Federal Law)

    Dog or canine searches of cars during traffic stops in PA often lead to drug possession/dealing charges and gun charges.

    For example, a police officer pulls over a driver for speeding. During the traffic stop, a canine search is performed revealing several bags of heroin. The individual is arrested and charged with federal charges, drug dealing (possession with intent to distribute). Can the individual fight the charges based on an illegal canine search of their car?

    Criminal cases accepted in Philadelphia, Delaware County, Chester County, Montgomery County & Scranton/Lackawanna County. FREE CONSULTATIONS (215) 564-0644

    In federal criminal cases involving a traffic stop, whether the officer was legally allowed to conduct a canine search depends on two main questions. First, did the officer extend the time of the stop? Second, was there reasonable suspicion (or probable cause) to extend the time of the stop and thus allow for the dog search?

    It’s important to note that federal law differs from Pennsylvania (state) law when it comes to dog searches. PA state law is far better for defendants because PA law views dog sniffs as searches, whereas federal law does not. Read more about PA (state) law on dog searches.

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    Did the Officer Extend the Time to Give a Ticket for the Traffic Violation?

    Officers are clearly NOT allowed to extend the duration of a traffic stop for no reason. There’s no set time table for a traffic stop, but federal and state law is clear that an officer must issue a ticket within a reasonable timeframe. What is “reasonable” depends on the circumstances, including factors such as:

    • time of day,
    • weather, visibility,
    • type/extent of traffic violation (speeding 5 miles versus 25 miles over the limit), and
    • neighborhood.

    If the officer did NOT extend the duration of the traffic stop, then Illinois v. Caballes, a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case controls. Under the Caballes case, a dog search is legal if it is conducted DURING a lawful traffic stop, and within the reasonable duration of the traffic stop.  

    In the case, a state trooper stopped Caballes on a highway for speeding. While the trooper reported the stop to dispatch, a canine officer heard the transmission and arrived at the location. While the initial trooper conducted a check on Caballes’ license and was issuing a ticket, the canine officer walked his dog around Caballes’ car. The dog alerted officers to the trunk where they found nearly 300 pounds of marijuana. The trial court denied Caballes’ motion to suppress the drug evidence, and the appeals court agreed. However, the state supreme court reversed, finding that the trooper acted illegally. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the state supreme court and held that since the troopers hadn’t extended the duration of the stop, the dog search was legal.

    If the officer DID EXTEND the duration of the traffic stop, then Rodriguez v. U.S., a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case controls. Under this case, an officer is allowed to extend the time for a traffic stop and conduct a dog search only if there’s reasonable suspicion of criminal activity (or probable cause to believe a crime was or is about to be committed) to prolong the traffic stop in the first place.

    The Rodriguez case involved a traffic stop for swerving out of a lane. When the officer approached the stopped car, he smelled a strong smell of air-fresheners. The officer questioned the driver and a passenger, called for backup and conducted a records’ check on the passenger. About 7-8 minutes after the officer gave a ticket to the driver, he walked his dog around the car. The dog alerted the officer to the presence of drugs, and the officer searched the car, discovering meth. The driver was charged with possession with intent to distribute. After Rodriguez lost at the state court level, he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court held that extending the stop after giving the ticket to the driver and conducting the dog search required an independent basis, i.e., reasonable suspicion.

    Facing Criminal Charges After a Dog Search of Your Car?

    If you are facing criminal charges after a police canine sniffed your car during a traffic stop, you may be able to fight the charges and file a motion to suppress the evidence seized from the car. If the motion is successful, some or all of the charges may be dismissed. Visit our Drug & Gun Possession Law Library for more info.

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    Pennsylvania Criminal Law: Passenger’s Legal Rights During Traffic Stops in Philadelphia (February 26, 2020) Do passengers have legal rights during traffic stops? When is an officer allowed to order a passenger to exit a car, or search a passenger’s personal items?

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