Can Police Dogs Search Your Car Without an Officer’s Reasonable Suspicion?

Author: Chris Gant, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

Imagine being pulled over for a small traffic violation. Despite lacking a reason for suspicion, the police officer decides that you look like someone who might have something illegal in the car. Then, you wait for the K9 unit to get to your car (ten minutes, twenty minutes, or longer), the search turns up nothing, and you are free to go. While to some, this intrusion is a slight annoyance, to others, this search could have vast consequences for the rest of their lives if the illegal search produces contraband. The Supreme Court has held that a K9 drug sniff does not constitute a search, but has left the question open for how long a traffic stop can be delayed for a K9 unit, stating only that the delay must be “reasonable.”[1] An expansion of the definition of what is a “reasonable” delay has major consequences, and has the potential to turn any traffic stop into a witch-hunt for drugs. This scenario is a potential result of the Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling in Rodriguez v. United States. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held in United States v. Rodriguez that following the completion of a traffic stop, it was permissible under the Fourth Amendment for a police officer to make a driver wait while a dog was employed to sniff his car, despite the officer’s lack of reasonable suspicion that the car contained contraband.[2] The court held that the search was constitutional because it was merely a “de minimis” intrusion on the defendant’s rights.[3]

Fortunately, the Supreme Court has the opportunity correct the Eighth Circuit’s decision and protect Americans’ right against unreasonable searches. The Supreme Court should rid appellate courts of the “de minimis” doctrine with regards to the Fourth Amendment because any intrusion on the fundamental rights of American citizens—such as the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures—is an unacceptable intrusion, regardless of the degree of infringement. Moreover, the “de minimisstandard is an unworkable one where no-bright line rule can exist with practicality. The standard is ambiguous and leaves too much leeway for officers to intrude on the privacy of citizens, and so must be rejected.

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