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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > November 2012 > State v. Wilcox — Fifth District Court of Appeals, Sept. 25, 2012

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State v. Wilcox — Fifth District Court of Appeals, Sept. 25, 2012

Question: Does an illegal seizure take place if peace officers instruct a suspect to put her purse on the hood of the vehicle, and does an illegal search take place when they look inside it after a K-9 unit alerts to it?

Quick Answer: No, instructing a suspect to put a purse on the hood of a car is not a search. And when an officer is reasonably diligent in conducting a stop, an alert by a K-9 is not unconstitutional.

Facts: Melody Wilcox was stopped for a headlight violation in a neighborhood known for criminal activity. Immediately upon initiating the traffic stop, the officer called for the K-9 unit. Wilcox pulled over into a parking lot after driving for another half block. She then jumped out of the vehicle, and the officer asked her to stay with her vehicle and place her purse on the hood of the car. The officer asked Wilcox for her driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance, and she could not produce one of those items. Once the officer determined Wilcox had a valid driver’s license and no outstanding warrants, he began to issue a citation for the headlight violation. At this time, the K-9 unit arrived. The officer was still writing the citation when the K-9 unit alerted to drugs.

Why this case is important: When it comes to K-9s, officers frequently run into trouble when they unnecessarily detain a citizen in order to wait for the K-9 to arrive. If you don’t have reasonable suspicion of drug activity, you cannot extend a stop to wait for a K-9. Here, because the officer immediately requested the K-9, the unit arrived during the normal course of the stop. A traffic stop is not unconstitutionally prolonged when background checks are diligently undertaken and not completed by the time a drug dog alerts on the vehicle. As long as the stop was not delayed for the sole purpose of allowing the dog to conduct its search, there is no constitutional violation. The court here found that the K-9 alert, coupled with Wilcox’s actions and location, gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that she was involved in criminal activity and probable cause to search her purse.

Keep in mind: You can request a K-9 even if you don’t have any articulable facts of drug activity (such as the odor of marijuana or observation of drug paraphernalia,), but you cannot delay the stop any longer than reasonably necessary to write a ticket for the underlying offense. You should diligently take the same steps you would for any similar offender. If you finish you duties before a K-9 arrives, you should let the offender leave.

Visit the Fifth District Court of Appeals website to read the entire opinion.