Our criminal defense law firm represents clients in Pennsylvania and New Jersey charged with a wide crimes and offenses. The concepts of reasonable suspicion and probable cause are very important to any criminal defense especially in cases involving illegal drugs and narcotics. The United States and the state constitutions of Pennsylvania Constitutions protect individuals against illegal searches and seizures of their person and property. The concept of a search, however, is often misunderstood and actually goes beyond frisking someone or looking into their bag.
In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, much like other jurisdictions, law enforcement often employ dogs trained to detect drugs and. A dog or canine brought to sniff articles of clothing or bags is considered a search under the Pennsylvania but not necessarily under New Jersey law.
If police or other law enforcement wants to use dogs, however, they must do so more than with a hunch or a guess that a person or piece of property has drugs. A person has an expectation of privacy and obviously their person but also in their property. The expectation of privacy is essential to any Fourth Amendment claim (claim against illegal search and seizure) because without it a person has no standing to assert such a claim. I have written previous articles on the expectation of privacy and I invite you to read them.
The search of a person’s person is much more intrusive than the search of their property and therefore requires probable cause to believe that a person possesses drugs based on the facts and circumstances surrounding the stop of the individual along with the police officer’s training and experience.
Unlike the search a person’s body, however, the search of property requires a reasonable suspicion in most cases but New Jersey and Pennsylvania have different standards when it comes to drug dog searches. Reasonable suspicion is a lower form of probable cause and police therefore do not have to articulate as much of a basis for such a search. Canine searches are not limited just to property like bags but also automobiles and other motor vehicles.
A criminal defense attorney will assert Fourth Amendment claims in a Motion to Suppress Evidence which is often considered one of the strongest criminal defense tools available to a person prior to trial. During a Motion to Suppress Evidence a criminal defense attorney will cross examine the arresting police officer as for the basis of the reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause depending on the nature of the search.
The Pennsylvania Standard For Drug Dog Searches in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, courts have found that the following factors do provide police with sufficient reasonable suspicion for a drug dog search:
- Overly nervous driver
- The driver is not the owner of the vehicle and the owner of the vehicle isn’t in the car
- The vehicle traveling from a known “drug source city” (Philadelphia, Camden)
- The suspect’s criminal history following a quick criminal background check
Drug Dog Searches in New Jersey
In New Jersey, the State Supreme court has ruled that canine sniffs do not require reasonable suspicion because they are far less intrusive than a search. The State Supreme Court has explained that requiring reasonable suspicion to conduct canine sniffs would grant criminals a windfall “while affording no legitimate privacy protections to the law-abiding public.” New Jersey also believes that canine sniffs are necessary not only for narcotics investigations, but also for catching terrorists and child abductors.
In the case of State v. Dunbar (2017) the New Jersey Supreme Court adopted the Federal standard and ruled that, in New Jersey, police officers don’t reasonable suspicion of a drug offense to conduct a canine sniff during a motor vehicle stop, as long as the canine sniff does not prolong the stop beyond the time necessary to complete the stop’s mission.
Pretextual Traffic Stops—Tinted Windows, Windshield Obstructions, License Plates
Other factors which can contribute to reasonable suspicion are heavily tinted windows, which in and of itself, may allow police to stop a vehicle due to the violation of the vehicle code. While this is a minor violation, Pennsylvania courts have found that warrantless vehicle searches are permissible even if the initial traffic stop began before pre-textual reason. The following are pre-textual reasons for a stop:
- Window tint
- Obscure of blocked rear view mirror (air freshener)
- Improperly displayed license plate (missing screws or hanging)
Extended Police Detention Without Reasonable Suspicion is Illegal
If you’re stopped by police and they initiate an investigation which eventually leads to drug sniffing dogs, you should tell your attorney approximately how long it took for police to bring in the canine unit. The US Supreme Court has ruled that, while an initial traffic stop allows police to detain a car for a certain amount of time, if the duration of the stop becomes too long, police need additional reasonable suspicion to sustain it. In other words, police cannot hold you and begin what amounts to be a fishing expedition.
Pennsylvania courts have ruled that a traffic stop which exceeds the normal time to issue a ticket or warning requires additional reasonable suspicion. Even if the driver appears nervous or overly apologetic to a police officer, this, in and of itself, does not constitute reasonable suspicion to allow a drug dog unit to begin a search.
Timing, therefore, is very important during a vehicle traffic stop and most state, county, and local police cars are equipped with video recording devices which can show the exact amount of time it took from the stop until the arrest. Your attorney should take special note of this time because it can form a strong basis for a motion to suppress physical evidence in many drug, narcotic, and illegal gun or firearm cases in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
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