In a recent trafficking in cocaine case that took place a couple of hours south of Jacksonville, Florida, a police officer found cocaine in a person’s vehicle and arrested him after a long police encounter that was initiated as merely a traffic stop. Because the police officer too too long to conduct the search, the court ultimately threw the case out due to an illegal search.
Many drug arrests start out simply as traffic stops but turn into something more serious after the police officer searches the car. Once the police officer has stopped the driver for speeding, running a red light or some other traffic violation, the police officer may try to look for a way to conduct a search of the vehicle. Most of the time, the police officer will simply ask the driver for consent to search the vehicle. Everyone should understand that they have an absolute right to refuse when a police officer asks for permission to search a vehicle or anything else owned by that person.
If the police officer cannot get consent to search, he/she may look for evidence that drugs or other evidence of illegal activity are in the vehicle and use that as a basis for a search. However, if the basis for the traffic stop was a traffic violation, the police officer has limited time to come up with such evidence. The police officer cannot ask a bunch of questions or make up reasons to keep the driver at the scene while he/she waits for a drug dog to show up. If the police officer cannot uncover specific evidence of illegal activity within the time it would take to write a normal citation or warning for the traffic violation, he/she cannot extend the encounter in the hopes that incriminating evidence will surface or the drug dog will get there to sniff the vehicle. Once the time necessary for the traffic violation investigation has elapsed, the police officer has to let the driver go if no other incriminating evidence is revealed. If the police officer keeps the driver at the scene any longer, any evidence that is ultimately uncovered should be thrown out of court pursuant to the criminal defense lawyer’s motion to suppress.
In this case, the police officer pulled the defendant over for speeding. After a few minutes, the officer indicated he was going to give the driver a warning for the speeding offense. Thereafter, the police officer asked the driver and his passenger a bunch of questions about who they were, where they came from and where they were going. He asked the driver questions about the rental car and his occupation while he was waiting for the drug dog to show up. After almost 30 minutes, the police drug dog arrived, sniffed the exterior of the car and alerted to cocaine inside. The driver was arrested for trafficking in cocaine after the cocaine was found by the officer in the vehicle. However, the evidence of the cocaine was ultimately thrown out because the police officer had detained the driver for much longer than it took to handle the speeding offense. Because the drug dog did not arrive to locate the cocaine for almost 30 minutes and the stop was only based on a speeding violation, the detention of the driver was too long and violated his Constitutional rights. As a result the trafficking charge was ultimately dismissed.