The importance of probable cause for a search

A recent Tennessee case proves that police must have demonstrable probable cause to conduct a search when drug-related activity is suspected. In that case, the defendant, Terry Lamont Bowden, was pulled over in Franklin, Tennessee, for a window tint violation. The officer on the scene decided, after pulling him over, to bring in drug-sniffing dogs to determine if drugs were present in the vehicle.

Neither Mr. Bowden’s legal team nor the judge in the case argued that the initial stop was illegal, but raised the issue as to whether the search of the vehicle after an “alert” by a drug-sniffing dog was constitutional.

The K-9 unit did an outside sweep of the car, and the drug dog allegedly “hit” on several areas. Importantly, the dog did not perform its characteristic actions indicating a hit (like scratching at the vehicle, lying down in the spot, biting or barking at a particular location), but instead merely acted “differently.” The officer testified that he believed there were sufficient changes in the dog’s body language indicative of a showing that drugs were present.

Based on the dog’s behavior, police searched the vehicle and discovered more than 109.13 grams of marijuana. Under the state’s controlled substances laws, Mr. Bowden received a six-year prison sentence. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found that, since the initial search (founded solely on the dog’s ambiguous body language) was improper, the evidence of the search should be suppressed and the case dismissed.

Broader application

This case underscores one fundamental concept in the law: the importance of valid probable cause before an arrest. The same could definitely apply in drunk driving cases. Without a reason for pulling you over, the police have no right to perform field sobriety testing or breath analysis on the scene (or blood testing afterwards). If your attorney successfully argues that the underlying stop that led to DUI charges was improper, the charges can be dropped.

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