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Interior Dog Sniff of Open Car Not Illegal Warrantless Search

In United States v. Pierce, No. 09-3865 (3d Cir., October 1, 2010), the defendant was stopped by a Delaware State trooper for speeding. According to the trooper, the defendant's responses to his questions led the trooper to remove the defendant from the vehicle. As the defendant complied with the trooper's command, he left the front driver's side door open. At some point, the trooper requested that a narcotics dog conduct a K-9 examination of the car. As the narcotics dog and its handler circled the vehicle, the dog alerted when he reached the front passenger side door. When the dog and its handler reached the driver's side of the car, the dog immediately jumped into the driver's seat through the open door. The dog intently sniffed the glove box and air vents. In response to the dog's alert, the trooper searched the glove box and discovered approximately one kilogram of cocaine and over $20,000 in cash.

Citing the Eighth and Tenth Circuits, the Third Circuit determined that an interior dog sniff is not violative of the Fourth Amendment if the dog's actions are instinctive, and not directed, facilitated or encouraged by its handler. The defendant argued that the dog's sniffs of the interior of the car constituted a Fourth Amendment search because the dog's handler facilitated his entry into the vehicle. However, after a review of the record, which included a videotape of the traffic stop, the Court concluded that the dog acted instinctively and without facilitation by its handler. The Court ultimately ruled that the dog's interior sniff at issue was not a search under the Fourth Amendment, but merely a natural migration from its exterior sniff. The Court also noted that the search would have been deemed permissible because it is well settled that a dog's positive alert during an exterior sniff of a vehicle establishes the probable cause necessary to search the interior of the car.

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