Reasonable suspicion must come before calling dog to search

Marta, a black Labrador police dog, sniffs around a car for a test package while her handler, Lewiston police officer Chris Reese, patiently watches. A recent Idaho Court of Appeals ruling has reaffirmed that police officers must have reasonable suspicion of drug activity before forcing suspects to wait for drug dogs, and K-9 sweeps must not lengthen the time of a traffic stop.

An Idaho court ruling that restricts the amount of time in which police can detain motorists while waiting for a drug dog may not shed new light on how traffic stops are conducted, but it reaffirms limitations on officers that were set in previous cases.

Moscow attorney James E. Siebe said the recent Idaho Court of Appeals ruling is in line with one Idaho Supreme Court opinion and another state ruling that prohibits police from detaining motorists for longer than it takes to write a ticket.

"If there's a headlight out, deal with it," Siebe said. "You can't use that as a subterfuge to get into someone's rig."

In the latest opinion, the

Idaho Court of Appeals ruled to suppress evidence in a Canyon County case in which police waited 10 minutes before a drug-sniffing dog arrived to a traffic stop made because of a cracked windshield.

Three justices on the appeals court ruled the officer's citation could have been quickly written, but the patrol officer instead called for the K-9 unit after learning through radio traffic of the motorist's drug history.

The traffic stop took 19 minutes - much longer than it takes to write a citation, the justices opined - and the defendant was arrested on a drug charge.

Justices didn't specify how long a motorist could be detained, but ruled that a stop couldn't be prolonged to enable a canine sweep.

"How long does it take to write someone up a ticket (before) it's extended from a momentary stop to a seizure," Siebe said is the real question.

News of the latest ruling did not cause a ripple effect at the Lewiston Police Department, where Lt. Roger Lanier said his officers have already adopted modus operandi precautions learned from previous court opinions.

"We already operate under that," Lanier said.

The department's K-9 officer, Chris Reese, keeps abreast of laws in the offing and court cases that address how drug-sniffing police dogs are used in traffic stops.

"We've already implemented that because of officer Reese's foresight and training," Lanier said. "So, it won't change the way we do our job now, because we've made that adjustment."

On a windy winter afternoon last week, Marta, a black Lab who serves as the department's K-9, demonstrated her prowess at sniffing out a drug sample in a parked car. The European Lab, a shorter, stockier version of its American cousins, swept around the vehicle until locating a bindle of pot stashed in a trunk.

Marta was deployed 143 times last year. So far this year, the frisky Lab has been used 22 times, Reese said.

Last month, the K-9 was responsible for locating methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana and drug paraphernalia, he said. And since being acquired by the department a few years ago, she is responsible for multiple asset forfeitures that are typical in drug cases, including money and vehicles associated with the trade, as well as firearms and counterfeit cash.

"Idaho is a pretty dog-friendly state," Reese said. "We have a strict certification process, and the courts understand that."

Time, however, is still of the essence, he said. If a patrol officer has reason to believe drugs are present in a vehicle, he or she can call for Marta to sweep the vehicle if it does not extend the reason for the traffic stop.

"It could be as little as five minutes or as long as 20 minutes," Reese said. "The courts haven't ruled on a specific amount of time."

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Bartholdt can be contacted at rbartholdt@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2275.

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