Houston Criminal Defense Attorney

U.S. Supreme Court limits dog searches in drug possession case

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