Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Colorado Supreme Court: Police Detention of Car for Dog Sniff Without RS Illegal

Although recent Colorado case law has established that police can detain a person to conduct a dog sniff for contraband, provided that they have reasonable, articulable suspicion of such, the Colorado Supreme Court has recently made it clear that any detention must be justified by reasonable suspicion actually necessitating the dog sniff itself.

In People v. Mason, decided June 3, the defendant was stopped for failing to signal properly and failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.  Even after the driver was found to be driving under suspension as well and issued a traffic citation, he was not given back his identification and detained because a fellow officer informed officers on scene that the driver may be involved in drug trafficking.  The driver was detained until a canine unit arrived and conducted a sniff of the vehicle, which revealed the presence of controlled substances.

Both the trial court and the Supreme Court held that the reasonable suspicion that justified the stop and detention of the driver ended once he was cited for the driving violations, and that the inarticulated suspicions of another officer that the driver was possibly involved in drug trafficking was insufficient to justify further detention of the driver once he was cited.

Simply put, as long as law enforcement officers retain a driver's identification and other legal documents during a traffic stop, that driver is seized for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, and that continued seizure is only justified if the officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that the driver is involved in criminal activity that extends beyond mere traffic violations for which he/she was stopped.

Even traffic stops implicate the Constitution.  It is important to have the assistance of an experienced attorney to assess whether the conduct of law enforcement officers was proper.

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