In order to search a car without a warrant or permission, a police officer usually must have probable cause to believe that there’s evidence of a crime in the vehicle. One of the questions that can come up in drug and other cases, however, is just what qualifies as a “search.” The West Virginia Supreme Court recently held that police officers can use dogs to sniff around the outside of a car for drugs without requiring probable cause.
Mr. Brock was sentenced to three to 15 years behind bars following his February 2014 conviction on two counts of drug charges related to his alleged operation of a clandestine drug laboratory. The sentence was later suspended, and Brock was ordered to serve three years of probation. The “lab” was a car that Brock was driving with a co-defendant when it was pulled over by police in Wood County the previous year.
According to evidence introduced at trial, Capt. Woodyard of the county sheriff’s department began following the car after it was observed driving up to a suspected meth house. Officers watching the house saw the car pull up and leave twice. There were two passengers in the car both times, and one person left the car to go into the house for about 15 minutes each trip. Capt. Woodyard was working undercover in plain clothes at the time. He followed the car when it left the second time, and he had an officer in a marked patrol car pull the vehicle over after Woodyard saw it repeatedly cross the center line on the road on which it was traveling.
The officer who stopped the car – Trooper Jackson – ordered a canine unit to come to the scene after Brock declined Jackson’s request for permission to search the car. The dog alerted him to the presence of drugs on the passenger side door. Jackson then searched the car and found what he believed were the makings of a “shake and bake” meth lab, including syringe, a cold pack, coffee filters, a used coffee filter with white powder residue, and ammonium nitrate. Some of those items later tested positive for meth residue.
Brock appealed his conviction, arguing among other points that the evidence seized from the car should not have been admitted as evidence because Jackson didn’t have the right to search the car. He asserted that Jackson didn’t have probable cause to believe that there was meth – or meth-making tools – in the vehicle. Instead, Brock noted that he was pulled over after Woodyard observed the car crossing the center line.
Affirming the decision, the Supreme Court said that the dog sniff wasn’t a “search” under the U.S. Constitution and therefore didn’t require probable cause. “[T]he Petitioner’s argument that the use of a drug-sniffing dog constituted a search in and of itself that had to be supported by probable cause is without merit,” the Court said. “The use of the drug-sniffing dog on the outside of the vehicle during the lawful traffic stop was not a search requiring probable cause to effectuate.” The Court also said the delay from the time that the car was pulled over until the canine unit arrived was reasonable. As a result, the Court upheld Brock’s conviction.
Search and seizure issues like this one often come up in criminal cases, particularly those involving alleged drug offenses. It’s important that a person facing criminal charges seek the counsel of an experienced criminal defense attorney. The West Virginia criminal defense lawyers at the Wolfe Law Firm have been serving clients throughout the state for more than 25 years. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.
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