Drug Sniffing Dogs

NYT: Supreme Court to Rule on Drug Dogs in Traffic Stops [RSS]

When Roy Caballes was pulled over by an Illinois state trooper for speeding on a rainy night in 1998, the incident did not seem to be grist for a Supreme Court case.

But as Mr. Caballes’s car was sitting beside Interstate 80 in La Salle County, another trooper arrived with a police dog. The dog sniffed around it for the presence of drugs, and marijuana was found in the trunk.

Mr. Caballes was given only a warning for speeding (he had been clocked at 71 miles an hour in a 65 m.p.h. zone), but he was in big trouble because of the marijuana, since he had prior drug-related arrests.

The 1998 arrest resulted in a conviction on marijuana-trafficking charges, a sentence of 12 years in prison and a fine of more than $250,000. Mr. Caballes appealed, contending that the trial court should have suppressed the evidence of the drugs found in the trunk and thrown out the arrest because the police had improperly widened the bounds of an ordinary traffic stop.

Frankly, Court rulings on the 4th Amendment have been so erratic that the outcome of this one is unpredictable. On the one hand, it’s rather clear that there was no reasonable suspicion that Cabelles had marijuana in the trunk, let alone grounds for a warrant. On the other, it has long been established that people have a very low expectation of privacy outside their homes, especially when in automobiles.

Part of it may hinge on this:

An Illinois appeals court rejected Mr. Caballes’s argument, finding that the sniff by the dog was justified. But the Illinois Supreme Court sided with the defendant, ruling 4 to 3 that the sniff was conducted without “specific and articulable facts” and throwing out the conviction.

The Illinois justices said the fact that the aroma of air-freshener was obvious in the defendant’s car and his apparent nervousness even after being told he was being given only a warning for speeding could account for “nothing more than a vague hunch” on the part of the troopers, not a sufficient basis to let the dog sniff. (One fact not explained in any of the legal paperwork is why Mr. Caballes was pulled over in the first place, since he was going a mere 6 m.p.h. over the limit.)

Curious indeed. One wonders if Caballes fit some sort of profile and the speeding ticket was a ruse for the drug search.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Policing, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rob says:

    I could be wrong, but since when did police need a search warrant to walk around you car with a dog?

  2. Tom says:

    Well, walking around the car with a dog is no big deal. Walking around the car with a trained dog for a specific purpose, searching for drugs, could be interpreted as an invasion. It would be like passing the car through an xray machine. All you are doing is looking at the car, but the xray machine invades the privacy by its specific application.

  3. Rob says:

    The x-ray vision you speak of penetrates the surface of the vehicle. Wouldn’t the odors the dog picked up on actually exist outside the vehicle? Wouldn’t smelling something from the outside of the vehicle be tantamount to seeing something through the window?