The United States Constitution guarantees Americans freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, both when they are at home and in their personal vehicles. While Florida law enforcement is bound to respect residents’ Fourth Amendment rights, the police sometimes deploy K-9 units as a questionable work-around, using drug dogs to establish probable cause when none yet exists.

Your Rights as a Florida Driver

Police K-9 Ready to Search Around a VehicleThe police must always demonstrate probable cause before initiating a traffic stop. In other words, the officer must have a reason to believe that you broke the law. The police can establish probable cause by providing evidence that you may have committed an infraction such as:

  • Driving through a stop sign.
  • Running a red light.
  • Drifting into another lane.
  • Appearing intoxicated.

If the police pull you over with probable cause, they could investigate further if they have reason to believe you have committed another crime.

Drug Dog Walkarounds

The police are not entitled to search your car if they merely suspect that you have broken a law. Unless the police can demonstrate further probable cause to justify a search, they need your authorization to search the inside of your car.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the police cannot perform a K-9 walkaround. According to a recent Supreme Court judgment, a trained police dog may “sniff” the outside of a vehicle. This so-called “free air sniff” does not constitute a search, and does not violate suspects’ Fourth Amendment rights. So, when a K-9 indicates there could be contraband inside of a car, the police may use the drug dog’s reaction as the basis for a probable cause search.

Protecting Your Rights After an Unlawful K-9 Search

While the Supreme Court has found that a K-9 walkaround is constitutionally acceptable, this does not mean that police can use drug dogs without restraint.

In general, law enforcement cannot use drug-sniffing dogs as an excuse to unnecessarily prolong an encounter. If the investigating officer has no reason to believe that you have illegal drugs or other contraband, they may not summon a K-9 unit if one is not on-site or readily available.

Similarly, the K-9 is only entitled to a “free air sniff”—they cannot let it linger or loiter outside of the car in the hopes that it will provide a desired reaction.

Contact an Okaloosa County Criminal Defense Attorney

If you or a loved one have been charged with a crime in Okaloosa County, call Flaherty & Merrifield today at (850) 243-6097 for a free consultation.


Tim Flaherty
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Florida Criminal Defense Attorney