The North Carolina Supreme Court recently decided that a drug dog sniff does not improperly prolong a traffic stop under certain circumstances.
In State v. Bullock, the North Carolina Supreme Court considered whether a drug dog sniff unreasonably extended the duration of a traffic stop in violation of the 4th Amendment Constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizure.
Facts of the Case in State v. Bullock
Michael Antonio Bullock was pulled over for speeding and other traffic violations. While the officer was performing routine checks related to the traffic stop, Bullock made a number of contradictory statements. The officer's own experience in local drug enforcement, coupled with Bullock's contradictory statements and other suspicious behavior led the officer to suspect that Rodriguez was trafficking drugs.
Based on that suspicion, the officer asked if he could search Bullock's vehicle. The officer's dog sniffed a bag that was found during the search, and the dog alerted the officer to the presence of drugs. The bag contained a large quantity of heroin, and Bullock was arrested on drug charges.
Bullock moved to suppress the bag of heroin from evidence, arguing that the drug dog sniff improperly prolonged the traffic stop in violation of the 4th amendment.
The Court decided that the drug dog sniff did not improperly prolong Bullock's traffic stop, because the officer had "reasonable suspicion" that Bullock had committed other crimes.
How Long Can a Traffic Stop Last?
The 4th Amendment states that: "The right of the people to be secure…, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated."
In legal terms, a traffic stop is considered a seizure because it (at least temporarily) interferes with a person's liberty. Therefore, traffic stops cannot be "unreasonable" under the 4th Amendment.
The North Carolina Supreme Court decision in State v. Bullock relied on precedent set by the United States Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court has found that a reasonable duration for a traffic stop is the amount of time it takes for police to complete the "mission" of the stop.
The mission includes performing activities that address the traffic violation that prompted the stop and taking other steps that help ensure the police officers' safety, such as:
- Checking the driver's license
- Inspecting the vehicle's registration and insurance
- Searching for outstanding warrants against the driver
- Asking the driver to exit the vehicle
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a drug dog sniff does not violate the 4th Amendment if it occurs during the reasonable amount of time allotted for completing these activities.
When Can a Police Officer Prolong a Traffic Stop?
If the officer develops a "reasonable suspicion" that other crimes have been committed, it is acceptable to prolong the traffic stop so that a drug dog sniff can be completed.
Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause. In North Carolina, reasonable suspicion requires that an officer reasonably concludes "in light of his experience that criminal activity may be afoot."
In the North Carolina Supreme Court decision, the Court found that the officer had formed reasonable suspicion that Bullock was a drug courier. Because the officer formed this reasonable suspicion during the time it took to complete the "mission" of the traffic stop, prolonging the traffic stop did not constitute unreasonable seizure.