WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 - The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that in making a routine traffic stop, the police can permit a trained dog to sniff the car for drugs without the need for any particular reason to suspect the driver of a narcotics violation.
The 6-to-2 decision set aside a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court, which held in 2003 that a state trooper who had stopped a man for speeding had broadened the scope of the encounter beyond constitutional limits by having the dog sniff the car.
The dog alerted the police to the trunk, which contained $250,000 worth of marijuana. The addition of the dog impermissibly turned a traffic stop into a drug investigation, the Illinois court said.
In the majority opinion on Monday, Justice John Paul Stevens said the dog's sniff did not amount to an unconstitutional search because it did not prolong the 10-minute traffic stop and did not violate any "legitimate interest in privacy" a driver could have in carrying contraband.
"A dog sniff conducted during a concededly lawful traffic stop that reveals no information other than the location of a substance that no individual has any right to possess does not violate the Fourth Amendment," Justice Stevens said.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable" search and seizure.
The opinion suggested that a dog sniff was not a search at all because it detects only contraband and therefore cannot compromise a law-abiding person's privacy.
"Official conduct that does not compromise any legitimate interest in privacy is not a search subject to the Fourth Amendment," Justice Stevens said. The analysis mirrored that of a decision in 1983 in which the court upheld the use of trained dogs to sniff luggage at airports.
Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg both issued vigorous dissents on Monday, warning that the latest decision, Illinois v. Caballes, No. 03-923, opened the door to the use of drug-sniffing dogs to patrol parking lots, garages, and even pedestrians on sidewalks.
"Under today's decision, every traffic stop could become an occasion to call in the dogs, to the distress and embarrassment of the law-abiding population," Justice Ginsburg said. And Justice Souter declared, "I would treat the dog sniff as the familiar search it is in fact, subject to scrutiny under the Fourth Amendment."
Under the court's Fourth Amendment precedents, while not all searches require probable cause, even a brief pat-down search requires "reasonable suspicion" on the part of the police.
In the new case, an Illinois state trooper stopped Roy I. Caballes for driving 71 miles an hour on Interstate 80; Justice Souter, in his dissenting opinion, said it was "remarkable" for the police to stop a car for driving six miles an hour over the speed limit on a highway. Another trooper, who handled a drug-sniffing dog, arrived at the scene as the first trooper was writing a warning ticket.
After the dog alerted them to the trunk, the officers found the marijuana and arrested Mr. Caballes. The trial judge rejected his motion to suppress the evidence and invalidate his arrest. He was convicted, sentenced to 12 years in prison, and ordered to pay a fine equal to the value of the marijuana, $256,136.
The Illinois Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the ground that the arrest was invalid in the absence of "specific and articulable facts" suggesting drug activity and thus justifying the use of the dog.
In his majority opinion on Monday, Justice Stevens suggested that the arrest might have been invalid if the use of the dog had "unreasonably prolonged" the traffic stop. In that instance, a defendant could challenge an unlawful detention, he said.
The opinion was joined by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who missed the argument on Nov. 10, did not participate.
In other action on Monday, the court vacated hundreds of federal criminal sentences, ordering lower courts to reconsider them in light of the decision 12 days ago in United States v. Booker. In that decision, the Supreme Court held that the federal sentencing guidelines were, in fact, guidelines, and could no longer be considered mandatory.
Not all the defendants will necessarily benefit from a review of their sentences, but all had filed their appeals in light of recent Supreme Court rulings that had placed the validity of the federal guidelines in substantial doubt.
The degree to which the federal criminal justice system has been unsettled by the sentencing debate was indicated by the numbers: the approximately 400 cases on which the court acted represented nearly 10 percent of all cases that have been filed in the Supreme Court since the start of the current term.
For more on how to handle police encounters (and potential drug-dog searches), visit Flex Your Rights.
Note: The 27 page decision is on line at: www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/04pdf/03-923.pdf
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