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A Police Officer Intentionally Prolonging A Routine Traffic Stop For The Purpose Of Conducting A “Canine Sniff” Test Requires Reasonable Suspicion That The Driver Was Engaged In Drug Activity

June 13, 2019

STELIOS STOUPAKIS reports on a recent unpublished decision from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, concerning the suppression of evidence when a police officer intentionally prolonged a routine traffic stop to enable a “canine sniff” test which resulted in damaging evidence against the driver.

Specifically, the Appellate Division effectively secured a driver’s rights during a routine traffic stop and tightened a police officer’s broad authority over a driver.  A police officer is authorized to conduct several unrelated checks during a lawful traffic stop; however, the police officer cannot do so in efforts to prolong a stop without reasonable suspicion that would justify detaining an individual.

The Defendant, in this case, was charged with second-degree possession of a controlled dangerous substance and second-degree unlawful possession of a handgun without a permit.  These charges stemmed from a routine traffic stop.  The Defendant was pulled over because a rear brake light of the car he was driving was not working.  When pulled over, the Defendant acknowledged the brake light was out and provided his license, registration and proof of insurance without incident.  The police officer did not see anything suspicious, and the driver was cooperative.  At some point during the stop, a Sergeant and more officers arrived with a canine based on information received from two Confidential Informants who reported the Defendant being involved in the sale of narcotics in town.  The “canine sniff” test resulted in seizure of the automobile and a search warrant.  The search warrant ultimately produced a handgun, ammunition and narcotics.  The trial court denied the Defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence, and the Defendant was sentenced to five years in prison.  The Defendant appealed the denial of his suppression motion to the Appellate Division.

The Appellate Division asserted that at a Motion to Suppress Hearing, the State must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that prolonging the routine traffic stop was reasonable.  The Court applied this test to the facts of the case and noted that the information from the Confidential Informants was not specific enough to justify the extension of the traffic stop.  The Confidential Informants did not identify whether the Defendant sold narcotics out of his car or house or whether he would transport drugs himself.  The Court found that the police officers did not provide any additional information to justify a reasonable suspicion that the Defendant had narcotics in his car.  Hence, the Appellate Division reversed and remanded the case to the trial court to enter an order granting the Defendant’s suppression motion.

Please contact Stelios Stoupakis if you have any questions or need assistance in connection with this subject.