Can Police Have a Dog Sniff My Car Without My Permission?
Unfortunately, yes they can. The Supreme Court has held that a drug dog “sniff” is not a search, basically because they’re not invading your privacy (unless the dog “alerts” and they do a search). However, there are some important limitations. You can’t be detained against your will on the side of the road for a drug dog to sniff your car. It has to be done while you’re being held for another legal reason. So if you’re pulled over speeding, and one cop is getting your license and registration, and typing it into the computer, and getting a background check, and another cop is walking around your car with Ajax the drug dog at the same time, that’s probably legal.
However, if you’re pulled over for speeding and they keep you there for half an hour waiting for another officer to show up with a dog, that may very well be illegal. Utah actually has some good case-law saying that detaining you for even one minute to do a dog sniff after the “legitimate” stop is done is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
Can Police Search My Car Without Permission Based on the “Alert” of a K-9 Unit?
Yes they can. An “alert” is usually considered enough probable cause to do a search of the car. The problem here is that the cops have lots of leeway to define what an “alert” is. It’s usually some combination of barking, scratching, sniffing, sitting down, looking at the cop or looking at the car. (As one local judge said when an officer was testifying about all the things his dog did that could be an alert, “Is there anything your dog does that isn’t an alert?”).
A drug dog alert should be a verifiable, objective signal that someone else could identify, but there’s always a bit of “dog-whispering” going on in these cases that is pretty disturbing. When the officer is the only one who really can define what an alert is for their dog, the officer has practically total discretion to search a car that the officer thinks has drugs.
What if the Cops Said the Dog Alerted on My Car But They Didn’t Find Any Drugs?
Then I would really like to hear from you. The good news is that this probably means you didn’t get charged with a drug crime. But it might mean that your Constituitonal rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure were violated. And it most likely means that that cop/dog team are searching other people without a legal reason. The only way to put a stop to this behavior is calling them out on it, and the only way to do that is to make your experience known. Please, please, please get in touch with me if this has happened to you anywhere in Utah.
What is the Cops Searched My Car and Did Find Something?
Well, then you’ve probably been charged with a drug crime and you should contact me or another Utah defense attorney to talk about your options. There can be issues with the stop, the investigation, or the drug dog itself that we can use to challenge your case. Even if not, an attorney can help you get the best deal possible and hopefully avoid the serious consequences that are associated with a drug conviction.