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Can a dog sniff your car pursuant to a lawful traffic stop?

If you're a North Carolina resident who has been pulled over by a police officer who says that you've committed a traffic-related infraction, you're probably a bit frazzled just from the unanticipated law-enforcement encounter and potential consequences.

Now imagine your likely consternation and ratcheted-up stress level in the event that the officer suddenly produces a police dog, stating that the canine will conduct a sniff search of your vehicle.

Must you acquiesce to that? Is it even lawful?

The United States Supreme Court says it is, with the nation's highest tribunal ruling upon the question in a seminal 2005 case. A majority of justices agreed in that matter that a dog sniff following a lawful stop does indeed pass constitutional muster.

As with many things in law, and as duly noted in a recent media article discussing warrantless drug-sniffing dog searches, certain caveats were attached to that ruling.

The first is that the dog sniff must follow a lawful stop. In other words, any warrantless dog sniff that proceeds absent a police officer's probable cause to detain a person in the first instance equates to an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. Any seizure of incriminating criminal evidence is constitutionally infirm and must be suppressed if the stop was not initially lawful.

A second point noted by the court: The dog search must not be "unnecessarily prolonged."

There is obviously an element of subjectivity in those words, which now leads the court to further examine the issue of dog-sniffing searches in a case that justices recently heard oral arguments concerning.

In those arguments, it was clear that certain justices were uncomfortable with the less-than-exacting standard enunciated in the 2005 case.

"We can't keep bending the Fourth Amendment to the resources of law enforcement," said Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

We will be sure to inform readers of all material details concerning the outcome of this case, following the issuance of a formal court ruling.

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