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Drug-sniffing dogs and probable cause

On Behalf of | Oct 4, 2023 | Criminal defense |

Many Virginia criminal cases involving serious drug charges arise from a relatively simple traffic stop.

Woman faces serious charges after traffic stop

For instance, a recent news story told of a Leesburg woman who was pulled over due to alleged traffic violations, but now faces multiple felony drug charges.

According to news reports, when police pulled over the woman, they walked a “K-9 officer” around her car. The dog alerted officers that it smelled drugs.

This alert gave the police probable cause to thoroughly search the vehicle. Police said in their search they found 14 grams of crack cocaine as well as opioids and other suspected drugs.

Probable cause and traffic stops

When police pull over a driver, their rights to search the vehicle are limited. If they see what appears to be evidence of a crime sitting in the backseat, they can search, but they will likely need some other justification to search hidden parts of the vehicle, such as the trunk, where the driver has an expectation of privacy. This justification is known as “probable cause,” meaning that the police have cause to believe that they will, more likely than not, find evidence of a crime if they search.

Ideally, the police will get a warrant to search the vehicle. This means they will submit their argument for probable cause to a magistrate judge, who can then issue the warrant.

The justice system is notoriously slow about most things, but it can be remarkably quick in issuing search warrants. Still, the process takes time, and so the police often use other means to justify a search. The easiest is to get the driver’s consent. They may ask the driver if it’s OK to search the vehicle. The driver, who is no doubt nervous and unsure what to say, may consent to the search before they’ve had a chance to think things through.

If they can’t get the driver’s consent, in some cases police may use a drug-sniffing dog. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that an alert from a trained drug-sniffing dog can justify a search of private areas in a vehicle. The Supreme Court made that clear in an important case earlier this year. Still, the court noted that it’s important that these dogs must be fully trained.

Defending against drug charges in a case like this can be very difficult, but it can be done.