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No Reasonable Suspicion Needed for Canine Narcotics Sniff

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In State v. Dunbar, the New Jersey Supreme Court considered the appropriate standard for police officers to conduct a canine sniff for detection of narcotics. In particular, the Court was asked to determine whether police require reasonable suspicion of a drug offense to conduct a canine sniff during a motor vehicle stop.

Defendant, a known drug dealer, was stopped for illegally parking in a handicap spot. While waiting for another officer to arrive and arrest one of defendant’s passengers, a K-9 unit on the scene conducted a canine stiff. The K-9 signaled that there were narcotics in the vehicle and defendant consented to a search. Xanax, oxycodone and heroin were found in the vehicle’s trunk. Prior to trial, defendant moved to suppress the drugs. The trial court held that the officers did not have reasonable suspicion that defendant was engaged in a drug transaction in his vehicle at that time and, therefore, they could not perform a canine sniff. The State then moved for reconsideration in light of the U.S. Supreme Court case of Rodriguez v. United States, which provided that a seizure justified only by a traffic violation becomes unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the stop and that reasonable suspicion of criminal activity must exist to conduct a seizure that goes beyond the time limit necessary to complete the stop. The trial court declined to follow the federal rule and denied the motion for reconsideration. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s suppression of the seized drugs.

The Supreme Court chose to adopt the federal view of canine sniffs. First, the Court endorsed the determination that a canine sniff does not transform an otherwise lawful seizure into a search that triggers constitutional protections. Second, the Court held that canine sniffs can be conducted without reasonable suspicion only if the sniff does not unreasonably prolong the traffic stop beyond normal parameters. Since the record does not provide sufficient information to determine if the stop was prolonged beyond the reasonable time necessary to conduct such a stop, the Court reversed and remanded the case.

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