Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Lawyer

Police Can Detain Drivers For At Least An Hour Prior To Canine Sniff

In Commonwealth v. Freeman, the Court held that the police could detain a defendant and his vehicle for an hour prior to a canine search where the police had only reasonable suspicion that defendant was involved in trafficking of narcotics.  In this case, the defendant was stopped in a rental car by a state trooper for following too closely and making unsafe lane changes. When the trooper approached the defendant’s vehicle he noted not the usual odor or marijuana or alcohol, but rather the “overwhelming odor of air fresheners” coming from the vehicle. The trooper testified that the defendant seemed nervous and gave conflicting statements regarding his travel plans so he called for backup and requested to search the vehicle.

In this case, the Defendant did what he should have and refused to consent to the search.  After refusing to allow the police to search, the police brought in a canine to sniff the defendant’s vehicle. Defendant was forced to wait outside of his vehicle, in the February cold without a jacket, for over an hour before the canine unit arrived. Once there, the canine indicated that there were drugs in the vehicle. Thereafter, a warrant was obtained and a search of the vehicle yielded 80 pounds of marijuana.

Defendant filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the canine sniff of his vehicle should be suppressed because he waited so long and the police had very little articulable fact to believe that he was involved in the commission of a crime. In finding against the defendant, the Court reiterated the law regarding investigatory detentions following a lawful traffic stop. Specifically, “[a] police officer may detain an individual in order to conduct an investigation if that officer reasonably suspects that the individual is engaging in criminal conduct.” Thus, the standard for detention following a traffic stop is merely “reasonable suspicion” which is very minimal standard and significantly less than probable cause. The standard is so low that “[e]ven a combination of innocent facts, when taken together, may warrant further investigation by the police officer.”

Under this standard, the Court credited the trooper’s testimony that, based on his experience, the smell of the air fresheners, the defendant’s nervousness, defendant’s conflicting statements, and the fact that the vehicle was a one-day rental traveling to New York, there was reasonable suspicion to believe he was in the process of trafficking narcotics.

The Court also considered, but were ultimately unpersuaded by the defendant’s claim that, even if the police had reasonable suspicion that he was engaged in a crime, the duration and the weather conditions made his detention unreasonable. The Court, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court, explained that when “assessing whether a detention is too long in duration to be justified as an investigative stop, we consider it appropriate to examine whether the police diligently pursued a means of investigation that was likely to confirm or dispel their suspicions quickly, during which time it was necessary to detain the defendant.” This standard is highly deferential to investigation officers and asked only if the police acted reasonable in carrying out their investigation.  Based on the testimony of the troopers, the Court found that they “acted reasonably and diligently in pursuing their suspicions” during the investigatory stop.