Fighting Drug Charges – Illegal Trunk Searches and Dog Sniffs in Colorado

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Imagine that you are pulled over by the police.  You see flashing lights behind you.  You hear the siren.  Then you pull over.  The officer tells you that you were speeding and asks for your license, registration, and insurance.  You hand them over.  Then the officer tells you that you look a little nervous to him.  He asks you to step out of the car.  You comply.  The officer says he would like to search your car and you say no.  Then the officer calls a dog to the car to sniff it.  The dog alerts.  The officer opens your trunk and finds drugs.  Then you get arrested.

In this scenario, the officer has illegally detained you and illegally searched you.  In Colorado, you are given greater rights than in other states.  Specifically, if you are pulled over for a traffic violation, the officer cannot expand the scope of his investigation and start patting you down and looking for random illegal things in the trunk of your car.  The officer can only expand the scope of his investigation if he has reasonable belief that a crime other than the traffic violation has occurred.  This reasonable belief needs to be more than a hunch or suspicion.  The officer has to have real facts from what he has seen that are strong enough that a normal person would believe that there was crime afoot.  If the officer does not have reasonable suspicion for a crime other than the traffic stop, he is only allowed to investigate the traffic violation.  So if he doesn’t have a reasonable suspicion that you are carrying drugs (remember it has to be more than a hunch), he can only write you the ticket and then let you go on your way.

Additionally, an officer may not unreasonably detain you to bring a dog to sniff your car without reasonable suspicion.  But it is important to note that people riding buses, airplanes, and trains have been known to be caught by drug sniffing dogs when the officer did not have a reasonable belief that you were carrying drugs.  This is allowed because the person was not being detained by the officer for him to conduct the drug sniff with the dog.  If the train or plane had been delayed by the dog sniff, then it would be an illegal search.  In the case of your car when you are pulled over, there is no question that you are being detained, so the officer has to have reasonable suspicion to get the dog and sniff your car for drugs in Colorado.

You may also be wondering about whether it is legal for the officer to ask you to step out of your car.  Unfortunately, it depends on the situation as to whether that is illegal or not.  Officers tend to say that they had you step out for safety, in these situations.  This is a valid reason for the officer to ask you to step out of your car so that part of the stop will probably not be suppressed by a judge.  It is also reasonable for an officer to pat you down to look for weapons but if he starts digging around in your pockets to figure out what you have in your pockets, then he has crossed the line and the pat down will be thrown out of court.

The information in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or as the creation of an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice, please contact an Attorney.

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Nathaniel has worked in criminal law on both sides of the aisle spending time working for the prosecution as well as the defense. Most recently Nathaniel has represented individuals in violent felonies and drug cases. Prior to this work, Nathaniel handled DWIs, Domestic Violence Cases, Property Crimes, and White Collar Crimes. On the prosecutorial side, Nathaniel has most notably worked in Bosnia helping to prosecute individuals who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Bosnian War from 1993-1995. In particular, Nathaniel helped in the prosecution of military leaders who arranged for the organized murders and rapes of innocent civilians in various towns in Bosnia. Nathaniel is a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, Northwestern University, and Phillips Exeter Academy. Google Profile: Nathaniel Baca