A lot of drug arrests in Texas take place after a vehicle is stopped for
a minor traffic violation and the officer has a drug-sniffing dog inspect
the vehicle. This month, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision
that places some limits on officers' authority to conduct drug dog
sniffs following routine traffic stops.
The case arose out of a traffic stop in Nebraska. An officer saw an SUV
swerve briefly onto the shoulder of the road and pulled the SUV over.
The officer issued the driver a written warning for driving on the shoulder.
The officer then had his dog sniff around the vehicle. The dog led the
officer to a large bag of methamphetamine. The driver was indicted on
federal drug charges of
possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute.
On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that a police officer cannot prolong
a traffic stop to conduct a search, including a dog sniff, unless the
officer has a reasonable suspicion to justify the search. That reasonable
suspicion must be independent of the reasonable suspicion of a traffic
violation that led to the initial traffic stop. The Supreme Court sent
the case back to the trial court to determine whether there was such a
reasonable suspicion in this case.
In any drug case based on a vehicle search, an aggressive defense lawyer
will carefully examine the arrest record and the officer's statements
to determine whether there were sufficient grounds to detain the vehicle
for the search. The Supreme Court's recent decision reaffirms that
police officers do not have unfettered power to search vehicles based
on nothing more than a hunch.
Source: New York Times, "Justices Rule That Police Can't Extend Traffic Stops," Adam Liptak, April 21, 2015