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Can Police Use a Drug-Sniffing Dog on My Car (Part I)?

In a tactic that is becoming increasingly prevalent around the United States, specially trained K-9 officers are appearing at otherwise routine traffic stops. These K-9 units are comprised of an officer and his or her drug-sniffing dog who perform a “free air sniff” around your vehicle. The way this usually works is routine: First, one officer pulls you over for a traffic violation. While that officer is writing your ticket, the K-9 unit will arrive. The K-9 officer should ask you to roll your windows up part of the way so that the dog is not able to jump inside your vehicle. The K-9 officer will then lead the dog around the perimeter of your car and instruct the dog to sniff the air around the car. If the dog “alerts” to the presence of drugs – usually by sitting, changing its breathing, or doing some other noticeable and distinct action – then the police will remove you from your vehicle and conduct a search of the interior of the vehicle.

This practice has motorists in Florida concerned. Are these tactics legal? Shouldn’t the K-9 officer be required to get a warrant before allowing his or her dog to sniff the air around your car? What should a Florida motorist do if he or she is subjected to a “free air sniff”?

The Bad News: “Free Air Sniffs” Are Usually Legal

The bad news is that “free air sniffs” of your car are usually permissible. (Note that this is notthe case when police are wanting to conduct a “free air sniff” of the area around your home: Florida v. Jardines requires that in most cases police must obtain a search warrant before they are able to bring a drug-sniffing dog onto your front porch.) While police are not able to search the interior of your car without your permission or probable cause to believe you are committing a crime and evidence of the crime (i.e., drugs) is in the car, a drug-sniffing dog’s “alert” is usually sufficient to create enough probable cause to enable the police to search the interior of your car. Because of your car’s mobility and the minimal expectation of privacy you have in your car compared to your residence, police can perform this search without first obtaining a search warrant.

The Good News: You Still Have Rights During a “Free Air Sniff”

You do have important rights when you are subjected to a “free air sniff.” For example, you do not have to answer the officer’s questions about whether you have drugs in your car (your answer would probably not impact whether a “free air sniff” will be conducted, anyway). Not only this, but the K-9 officer cannot unreasonably detain you in order to complete the “free air sniff.”

Contact a South Florida Criminal Defense Attorney

In our next part, we will discuss what you should do before, during, and after a “free air sniff.” Know that if you have been subjected to a “free air sniff” and you are now facing criminal drug charges, you are in a precarious position. Miami-based criminal defense attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner is able to review your case for violations of your constitutional rights and will aggressively challenge the introduction of illegally-obtained evidence in your case. In some cases, this can mean the dismissal of one or more charges filed against you. Contact the office of Jeffrey S. Weiner, P.A. at (305) 670-9919 today.

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