Use of Canines at Traffic StopsThe New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled on whether New Jersey officers can legally bring a police dog to a motor vehicle stop without first having any reasonable suspicion to do so. Come to find out, they can – but only if the addition of the dog’s sniff test doesn’t unduly prolong the traffic stop (beyond the amount of time required to make the original stop in the first place).

State v. Dunbar

In State v. Dunbar, police officers observed a vehicle (that displayed no handicap indicators) parked in a handicap parking space in front of a convenience store. One of the officers also recognized both the defendant and his vehicle from an anonymous narcotics tip. The officers approached the vehicle and questioned the driver before telling him that they were bringing in a canine to smell the car. The canine evidence was thrown out at trial court because the court found no reasonable and articulable suspicion that warranted the dog being included in the stop – since the officers hadn’t witnessed any criminal activity.

The state appealed this decision, and ultimately, the Supreme Court of New Jersey adopted the federal position that canines can be introduced to the scene of a traffic stop with no reasonable suspicion of criminal activity if the process doesn’t prolong the legitimate motor vehicle stop.

Further Action

Yes, in other words, the police can bring a dog in to sniff your car during a motor vehicle stop but only if it doesn’t unreasonably extend the duration of the stop. In State v. Dunbar, the Court reversed the motion to suppress the drugs found by the dog and sent the case back to the trial court to make two further determinations. These include whether the dog’s sniff search prolonged the traffic stop, and if it did, whether there was reasonable suspicion independent of the dog sniff to support the traffic stop’s extension. The Court’s ruling aligns New Jersey’s stance with that of federal courts  and clears up some of New Jersey’s former ambiguity on the topic.

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