Newsbrief: Federal Appeals Court Rules Traffic Stop Drug Dog Search Illegal 12/5/03

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The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that police may not detain motorists until a drug-sniffing dog arrives unless they have a reasonable suspicion that some crime has been committed. The ruling came in the case of Jody James Boyce, a New Jersey man who was pulled over for a traffic violation on I-95 in Georgia in 2001, issued a warning ticket by Officer David Edwards, but then detained until a drug dog could arrive after he refused to consent to a vehicle search. The drug dog signaled that drugs were present, police recovered 10,000 ecstasy tablets and two large containers of marijuana, and Boyce was subsequently convicted of possession with intent to distribute the drugs and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

He appealed, arguing that Edwards had no lawful reason to detain him after having written a warning ticket. The federal appeals court agreed, granting Boyce's motion to suppress the evidence from the unlawful search and sending the case back to the lower courts, where the state now has no case.

"While we recognize that drug trafficking is a serious problem in this country and we encourage law enforcement agencies to use every available means to control it, we cannot condone methods that offend the protections afforded by the Constitution," Judge Stanley Birch wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. "The detention of Jody Boyce extended beyond the time necessary to process the traffic violation for which he was stopped and Edwards did not have the reasonable suspicion to justify such a detention. Accordingly, the detention and search were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment."

The state attempted to argue that Boyce's behavior was suspicious enough to provide probable cause to detain him, pointing to, among other things, the fact that he was driving a rental car on I-95, which it called "a drug corridor." The appeals court wasn't buying, though. That set of facts "would likely apply to a considerable number of those traveling for perfectly legitimate purposes," the opinion noted curtly.

The court also took pains to make clear that exercising one's right to refuse to consent to a search is no grounds for calling in the dogs. "In addition... Officer Edwards immediately called in the drug dog after Boyce refused to allow a search," the court noted. "The immediacy of Edwards' response also indicates to us that the refusal to consent was the deciding factor for Edwards to continue Boyce's detention. The police cannot base their decision to prolong a traffic stop on the detainee's refusal to submit to a search."

Visit to reach the US v. Boyce opinion online.

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