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Drug Dog Vehicle Searches: A Legal Roundup

Most of the time, when a police officer pulls you over they will just ask some questions about your license, registration, speedometer, and whether you saw that stop sign you rolled through. But every now and then, a traffic stop will get a little more serious, and officers will threaten to or actually call for canine reinforcement.

So, are cops allowed to dog search your vehicle for drugs during any traffic stop? Do they need a warrant? Here's what you need to know.

1. Top 5 Vehicle Search Legal Questions

The first thing to understand is that courts treat cars a little differently than homes when it comes to searches. A person does not retain the same expectations of privacy in a car as they do in their homes. And most dog sniffs aren't even considered "searches" under the Constitution. There are limits, however -- if you were just pulled over for a simple traffic violation, officers can't unreasonably extend the stop to bring a canine unit to the scene.

2. When Are Warrantless Searches OK?

If dog sniffs aren't a search, do they require a warrant? While courts have ruled that a warrant is required for drug sniffing dogs to search homes, the same is not true for vehicles on the road.

3. When Are Police Dog Sniffs Legal?

According to the Supreme Court, "the use of a well-trained narcotics-detection dog -- one that 'does not expose noncontraband items that otherwise would remain hidden from public view,' -- during a lawful traffic stop, generally does not implicate legitimate privacy interests." Therefore, the Court reasoned, "A dog sniff conducted during a concededly lawful traffic stop that reveals no information other than the location of a substance that no individual has any right to possess does not violate the Fourth Amendment."

If you have more questions regarding drug dogs and vehicle searches, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney.

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