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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > July 2012 > United States v. Stubblefield, et al. — Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Te

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United States v. Stubblefield, et al. — Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee), June 19, 2012


Question: (1) Does a peace officer’s use of a drug-detection dog prolong the time necessary to complete a traffic stop? (2) Can a dog’s reliability be established so that his positive alert is sufficient probable cause to search? (3) Does a drug-detection dog’s alert allow a peace officer to search anywhere in the vehicle? (4) May a peace officer arrest a suspect based on what’s discovered during the search, even if the evidence has no relation to the drug-detection dog’s alert?

Quick answer: (1) No, in most cases, but it also depends on the facts and circumstances of the traffic stop. (2) Yes, an officer’s testimony as to a dog’s training and certification may establish the reliability of the dog. (3) Yes, under current federal law, a drug-detection dog’s alert provides probable cause to search every part of the vehicle and all containers within it. (4) Yes, if the officer has knowledge and reasonably trustworthy information to believe that the suspect has committed a crime.

Facts: A local police officer pulled over a rental car for speeding, and a state trooper arrived to assist with the traffic stop. The trooper explained the speeding ticket to defendants Cedrick Stubblefield, Latorey Earvin, and Brandon Spigner while the police officer walked his drug-detection dog around the car. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs, so both law enforcement officers began to search the car and containers inside that were capable of hiding drugs. From the search, the officers discovered a very heavy sealed and addressed envelope. They opened the envelope to look for drugs, but the officers instead found multiple fake drivers’ licenses, several false checks made out to names on the fake licenses, and maps to different stores in the Columbus and Dayton areas. From this discovery, the officers arrested all three defendants and towed the car. A further search of the car revealed more fake licenses, maps to specific stores, and lists of names with Social Security numbers. The defendants moved to suppress the evidence from the search based on Fourth Amendment violations.

Why this case is important: The court first held that using a drug-detection dog did not prolong the time necessary to complete the traffic stop. Walking a drug dog around a car during a traffic stop isn’t outside the scope of the stop. Also, less than five minutes passed between the police officer’s request for identification from the defendants and the trooper’s issuing of the speeding ticket. In fact, the trooper finished explaining the ticket while the police officer simultaneously walked the dog around the car.

The court next found that a drug-detection dog’s reliability may be based on the handler’s testimony alone.  The dog’s handler testified to the dog’s training, certifications, and accuracy, which helped establish the dog’s reliability.  The fact that no drugs were found in this case is not the important question to answer in determining a dog’s reliability.  Instead, the question is whether the dog is likely enough to be right so that a positive alert is enough to establish probable cause. Here, because of the dog’s reliability, the positive alert gave the officers probable cause to perform a warrantless search of the car and any containers in it capable of hiding drugs. The officers’ belief that drugs could be hidden in the envelope was reasonable, too, because, based on the officers’ training and experience, they knew that certain types of drugs could be packaged in an envelope.

Finally, the court found that the officers were justified in arresting the defendants because, when looking at the facts and circumstances, an objectively reasonable police officer would believe that the defendants had committed or were committing a crime. The officers found fake drivers’ licenses, bank checks, maps, and cash inside the envelope, so it was reasonable to believe that the defendants were using these fake IDs and cashing the checks at the various mapped out stores in the Columbus and Dayton areas.

Keep in mind: (1) You don’t need to have any suspicion to conduct a dog sniff of a vehicle, and a sniff isn’t outside the scope of a traffic stop. However, the sniff can’t prolong the time necessary to complete the traffic stop. (2) You will have to establish that a dog is trained and reliable in order for the alert to establish probable cause. This will include introducing certifications, training records, and the handler’s testimony about the dog’s reliability. (3) Under current federal law, when a trained and reliable drug dog alerts to the presence of drugs, you can search every part of the vehicle and any containers inside that you reasonably believe could hold drugs. However, this issue is currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, so the law could change (see April’s Bulletin, “Trending in the Courts”). (4) You need to have more than a mere suspicion before arresting a suspect for committing a crime, but you don’t have to show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed, just probable cause.

Click here to read the entire opinion.