K-9 Drug Dog Searches

Police officers may use drug dogs, referred to as K-9s, to identify illegal drugs and contraband in a variety of scenarios, often during traffic stops. But there are stipulations surrounding the use of K-9 searches, and reasons to question their reliability altogether.

Challenging K-9 drug dog searches

For the majority of legitimate traffic stops, police are legally allowed to walk a drug dog around a vehicle. If during that time the K-9 indicates to its handler hat it smells some type of drugs or contraband, police then have probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle. The legality of these searches comes into question if the traffic stop is prolonged for the purpose of conducting a dog “sniff-search” without either driver consent or reliable information that a crime is being committed beyond the traffic infraction. Other factors used to challenge dog searches can include a drug dog’s reliability record and matters of subjectivity.

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If an officer has a K-9 dog on hand when he pulls you over for a traffic violation, he can walk the dog around your vehicle at that time. But most officers don’t usually have drug dogs during typical patrol. In this case, they can’t just call dogs to the scene and detain you until dogs arrive without reasonable suspicion. It comes down to the duration of the traffic stop: Without a factual basis for suspecting criminal activity, police aren’t allowed to hold you to wait for dogs to come to the scene beyond the amount of time it takes him or her to run your tags and write a ticket.

Even in the case of a legal search, since K-9’s lack articulable language skills, their response during a sniff-search in any given situation is subject to their handler’s interpretation. This is not to say that a K-9 cannot often communicate very clearly in a manner that would be universally understood. For instance, most would agree that many dogs can exhibit “danger” signals which will not be easily misconstrued. However, the type of behavior exhibited in many sniff-search cases requires a level of interpretation that could readily be manipulated (even inadvertently) to serve the interests of the K-9’s handler as opposed to providing reliable and accurate information, especially in instances where there isn’t a reasonable suspicion raised while the officer is conducting the routine aspects of the traffic stop.

A K-9’s ability to reliably identify contraband is periodically tested for accuracy and this can be reflected by a K-9’s “certification.” However, the manner in which they are often evaluated is also highly subjective and can be unreliable. One way to evaluate a K-9’s accuracy, for example, is by calculating the number of false positives it has returned in real-life scenarios. When a K-9 alerts despite the absence of contraband — returning a “false positive” — the dog’s handler will frequently defend the K-9 by attributing the false positive to invisible “trace residue” that may have left a lingering odor on whatever item it was that caused the K-9 to alert.

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Attorney Erin H. Gerstenzang

Criminal defense for K-9 drug dog searches

None of this is to suggest that law enforcement should completely discontinue the use of K-9’s during investigations, however these issues raise serious questions regarding the current use of K-9 alerts to support a search. Depending on the details of your case, an experienced criminal defense attorney can argue for evidence to be suppressed.

If you’re facing drug possession conviction following a K-9 drug dog search, Attorney Erin Gerstenzang can help fight your charges; challenging the search in a drug charge case is one of the most successful legal methods for having your drug charge dismissed.

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