How Long Can Police Detain You While Waiting for a Drug Dog in NJ?

A policeman with his police dog.

If police suspect you of drug dealing or distribution, or an officer has reason to believe there are drugs in your car, they may request a canine unit or “drug-sniffing” dog to come to the scene.   These dogs are trained to alert their handlers if they detect odors associated with certain controlled dangerous substances like marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and others. Obviously, not every officer who stops a person on the street or at a traffic stop has a K9 unit with them. Police will likely have to extend your detention and their investigation as they wait for a drug-sniffing dog to arrive. The New Jersey Supreme Court recently examined whether the Constitution permits the police to prolong a detention as they await a K9 unit. The ultimate decision in this case spells significant implications for people stopped by police and suspected of drug crimes in New Jersey.

Can Police Stop and Search me for no Reason?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and parallel New Jersey law protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that an officer must have specific, articulable facts pointing to your involvement in criminal activity prior to stopping you, detaining you, and otherwise investigating you. The Fourth Amendment also requires that any investigatory detention, even when based on such reasonable and articulable suspicion, must not be unreasonably prolonged.

As applicable to canine sniff cases, an officer may not prolong a traffic stop beyond the time needed to deal with a traffic offense for you were pulled over unless the officer has a reasonable and articulable suspicion of additional illegal activity, such as intent to distribute marijuanapossession of heroin with intent to sell, or distributing cocaine. If an officer at a traffic stop does not have reasonable suspicion associated with an additional offense like cocaine possession, he may still conduct a canine sniff, but may not prolong the traffic stop to accommodate that canine sniff unless he has additional facts beyond the initial reason for the stop, to justify prolonging your detention at the roadside.

If I’m Stopped and an Officer Thinks I have Drugs, What Happens?

In a major case on roadside detention and canine drug searches, State v. Nelson, the New Jersey State Police received a tip that a suspect was transporting a high amount of marijuana in his vehicle and would be passing through a certain location. A detective identified the suspect and vehicle described in the tip and made a traffic stop. The stated reason for the stop was that the man failed to stay in his lane and was following another vehicle too closely, both traffic violations in New Jersey.

When a police detective approached the man’s vehicle, he was hit with an overwhelming smell of air fresheners, which he assumed were being used to mask the smell of drugs. The officer asked the suspect to exit his vehicle and subsequently gave him Miranda warnings. The man allegedly appeared to be nervous, was sweating and shaking, and changed his story about where he was coming from and going, according to police. The detective noticed that the car was empty save for two large bags in the cargo compartment of the vehicle. When asked what was contained in the two bags, the man said they contained shoes from a store at which he had worked. The suspect also told the officer that he had previously been arrested for marijuana possession.

At this point, the detective believed that he had articulable facts supporting his belief that the suspect was involved in transporting narcotics, separate from the traffic violations he had observed. The detective asked for permission to search the car, but the suspect said no. At this point, the officer called for a canine unit to conduct a search for drugs. The dog arrived a little over a half hour later and signaled that there were narcotics in the rear compartment of the vehicle. The detective obtained a search warrant, searched the vehicle, and found 80 pounds of marijuana.

At the trial court and on appeal, the defense argued that law enforcement had gone beyond investigating the traffic violations for which they pulled him over and unreasonably prolonged the detention and investigation at the roadside when they made the suspect wait around thirty minutes for a canine unit to arrive and conduct a sniff test. Both the trial court and an appellate court rejected these arguments, stating that the detention had not been unreasonably prolonged because the detective had articulable facts, beyond those facts that led him to make the traffic stop, that indicated the suspect had drugs in his possession. The New Jersey Supreme Court agreed, ruling that because the officer had reason to believe there were drugs in vehicle, it was not unreasonable for the detective to make the man wait for the drug-sniffing dogs.

Can Officers Detain me if they Call the Drug-Sniffing Dogs?

The above case has important implications for residents of New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court established that an officer can prolong a roadside detention for a substantial period of time, here 37 minutes, if the officer has specific, articulable facts—beyond those facts that led the officer to pull you over—indicating an additional crime or evidence of a crime. Here, the Court noted that the following provided the detective with reasonable suspicion to go beyond the initial traffic stop and call for a drug-sniffing dog:

  • An anonymous tip;
  • A person’s nervous behavior;
  • Changing the story about the trip;
  • Other items seen in the vehicle;
  • A prior drug arrest; and
  • The overwhelming smell coming from the car

You should be aware that if you are presenting with similar circumstances during a motor vehicle stop, New Jersey law now permits an officer to call for a canine unit and make you wait for it to arrive. In other words, police can detain you while awaiting a drug-sniffing dog, if they can establish a justifiable reason to believe that your car contains drugs or evidence of a crime.

Arrested for Drugs after K9 Search in Middlesex County, NJ

If you have been arrested for drugs after a search by the K9 unit, contact an experienced Middlesex County criminal defense attorney at our firm for help today. With local offices in Edison, we defend clients facing all kinds of drug charges North Brunswick, South Brunswick, Woodbridge, New Brunswick, Piscataway, and other New Jersey areas. Please feel free to call (732) 659-9600 for a free consultation about your specific drug case.

With more than a decade of experience defending clients against criminal charges, founding partner William A. Proetta has successfully handled and tried thousands of cases, from DWI to murder. As a New Jersey native, he has focused his career on helping people in the area where he grew up, serving Middlesex, Ocean, Hudson, and Union counties.