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TRAFFIC STOP 1: Did your officer have cause for a police dog to conduct a “sniff”?

Defendant was convicted of possession with the intent to deliver between 5 and 45 kilograms of marijuana, MCL 333.7401(2)(d)(ii).

The marijuana was found in his car’s trunk during a search that followed from a police dog alerting to the marijuana’s smell. Defendant argues that the trial court erred in finding that the search did not violate his rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Defendant was driving on I-196 when he was pulled over by Michigan State Police Trooper.  Trooper testified that he had observed defendant engage in two traffic violations: an improperly affixed license plate and a failure to signal a lane change onto an exit ramp.  After completing the computer checks, which confirmed defendant’s ownership of the car and revealed no outstanding warrants, Trooper told defendant to stay in the cruiser and that he was going to give him a warning rather than a ticket for the traffic violations. He then asked defendant for consent to search the car. When defendant declined to consent, Trooper informed him that he was going to radio a request for a dog to do a contraband sniff of his vehicle and that defendant would have to remain until the dog and its handler arrived and the process completed. After about 15 minutes, the dog and his officer arrived. The dog alerted at the car’s trunk. The officers opened the trunk and found the marijuana. The entire course of events, from Trooper’s initial observation of defendant’s vehicle to defendant’s arrest, was captured on video camera.

Defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the evidence found in the trunk. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court denied the motion.

Defendant raises two arguments grounded in the Fourth Amendment. First, he argues that Trooper lacked grounds to pull him over for a traffic stop. Second, he argues that Trooper lacked lawful grounds to detain him beyond the conclusion of the traffic stop.  Court of Appeals disagreed with defendant’s first argument but agreed with his second.

The traffic stop was completed when the officer determined that the vehicle was owned by defendant, gave him a warning about the traffic violations, and told him there would not be a ticket issued. After the traffic stop was completed, the officer asked defendant for permission to search his car. Defendant did not consent, at which point the officer told defendant that he was requesting that another officer bring a police dog to conduct a “sniff” for the presence of contraband in defendant’s vehicle. The officer ordered defendant to remain at the scene until the dog arrived and not to enter his car while waiting.

It is black letter law that a “seizure” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment occurs when in view of all the circumstances, a reasonable person would conclude that he was not free to leave.  Having been ordered by the officer to remain at the scene, defendant was obviously seized under the law, and the prosecution does not disagree with this characterization.

Court of Appeals concluded that Trooper did not have a reasonable suspicion of any criminal activity sufficient to justify his extension of the traffic stop to allow for a dog sniff.  Detaining defendant to wait for a drug sniffing dog and its handler to arrive and perform their work was an unconstitutional seizure of his person. The evidence of this wrongful seizure should not have been admitted. For this reason, Court of Appeals reversed his conviction and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

Attorneys Can Protect Your Rights

  • Did your arresting officer have cause to stop your vehicle?
  • Did the officer properly administer your breath or blood test?
  • Was the breath or blood testing equipment working properly?
  • Did the officer violate your constitutional rights?

By examining these and other factors, an attorney can develop a defense strategy tailored to your situation and pursue a resolution that meets your needs.

Aldrich Legal Services serves clients throughout Southeast Michigan, including in Wayne County, Washtenaw County and Oakland County, who are facing traffic-related charges.

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