Drug-sniffing dogs now allowed during traffic stops

By Gus Bode

Some worried about privacy issues

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision giving police broader search powers during traffic stops has some concerned about privacy issues, but local police say the general public has little to worry about.

The ruling allows drug-sniffing dogs to check vehicles stopped during routine traffic violations, even if police have no reason to suspect drug activity. Some groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, believe the ruling will lead to excessive traffic stops and expansive searches in an effort to find drugs.

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Former dog handler, Master Sgt. Mike Hooks of the state police’s Du Quoin office, said the only people who need to worry about the decision are law-breakers.

“This dog does nothing but sniff the air,” Hooks said. “If you have nothing illegal on you, what does it matter? We have guidelines as to what is fair and legal. We aren’t going to use the dogs to lengthen traffic stops and harass citizens, that’s not our job.”

The Illinois State Police has 36 drug-sniffing dogs across the state, including one used for seven southern counties, including Jackson. The city of Carbondale has one dog.

“Realistically, this will not change our day-to-day operations,” said Carbondale Police Chief Steve Odum. “We are not going to re-write policies or procedures so we can have a dog at every traffic stop. When the dog is available and working, we use it as much as possible. But we aren’t going to push it just because we can.”

The 6-2 decision stems from a 1998 traffic stop in which an Illinois state trooper stopped Roy Caballes, of Las Vegas, along Interstate 80 for driving 6 miles over the speed limit.

During the stop, another trooper pulled up with a drug dog and walked the dog around Caballes’ car. The dog reacted, and police searched the car, finding $250,000 worth of marijuana.

Caballes was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 12 years in prison, but his conviction was overturned when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled troopers improperly broadened an ordinary traffic stop.

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Caballes argued the Fourth Amendment protects motorists from such searches, but Supreme Court members disagreed, reasoning privacy intrusion was minimal. Chief Justice William Rehnquist did not vote on the case, as he missed arguments while being treated for thyroid cancer.

“A dog sniff conducted during a concedingly lawful traffic stop that reveals no information other than the location of a substance that no individual had any right to possess, does not violate the Fourth Amendment,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court.

But the ACLU says the decision exposes motorists across the country to “unnecessary, intimidating searches.”

Albert Melone, an SIUC professor who teaches classes on constitutional law, said he thinks the decision is a “serious deprivation of our civil liberties.”

“I think the ACLU is on to something,” Melone said. “This raises a serious specter as to whether the government is able to invade our privacy without having probable cause that we have violated drug laws. Is society’s interest in drug control greater than society’s interest in protecting human privacy?”

Regardless of the controversy surrounding the decision, Hooks said the police will continue “business as usual,” but with the blessing of the Supreme Court.

“We have been doing this for years,” Hooks said. “This doesn’t change anything. People say this will give police the right to walk the dog around anything, but the only people who really need to be upset are the people with illegal drugs.”

Reporter Monique Garcia can be reached at [email protected]

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