Pubdate: Fri, 28 Jan 2005
Source: Eden Daily News (NC)
Copyright: 2005 Media General
Author: J. Brian Ewing, Staff Writer


A United States Supreme Court ruling made this week may influence a
Rockingham County case now being reviewed by the North Carolina State
Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that drug-sniffing dogs could be
used in routine traffic stops. The ruling contradicts several lower
court decisions citing the need for probable cause before the dogs can
be used.

Police officers in Rockingham County are happy with the changes.

"We're excited about it. I agree with the court's ruling," said Eden
Police Capt. Reece Pyrtle. He said the court's decision cuts through
some of the red tape that allows criminals to escape

It took almost seven years for courts to cut through that red tape.
The ruling was made in the case of Illinois v. Caballes in which Roy
Caballes was pulled over by Illinois police for speeding in 1998.

The Illinois officer reported Caballes acted nervous so a K-9 unit was
brought out to sniff his vehicle. According to police, the dog sniffed
out $250,000 worth of marijuana. Caballes was later sentenced to 12
years in prison.

His sentence was overturned when his attorney successfully fought the
arrest on the grounds that the use of the drug dog violated his Fourth
Amendment rights.

The case is almost identical to the State of North Carolina v. Monica
D. Branch. In late 2002, the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office found
marijuana and crack cocaine in Branch's car while she was stopped at a
license and registration checkpoint. Sheriff's deputies discovered the
drugs after walking a K-9 around the car. Branch was found guilty in
Rockingham County Superior Court of misdemeanor possession of
marijuana and felony possession of cocaine; but in February, the State
Court of Appeals overturned the verdict.

"We therefore determine that the initial stop was justified, as found
by the trial court. The trial court erred, however, in finding that no
reasonable suspicion was necessary to conduct the dog sniff and
subsequent searches," the court ruled.

In November, the case was appealed to the state supreme court and
awaits an opinion. The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling will no doubt
enter into deliberations and the state court may take this opportunity
to challenge the high court's ruling.

Sheriff Sam Page believes the ruling will only strengthen the state's

"This helps us on our case," Page said adding, "if the officer has the
right to be there, so does the dog."

Page, himself a former K-9 handler, said the ruling treats the dog
more like another police officer.

"The dog is an officer too, he just has extra skills," said Page.

The sheriff did say however the ruling would not lead to over use of
K-9s by his office.

"I don't think (during) every traffic stop, even with a K-9 handler on
the scene, the dog will be brought out. But if the officer can
perceive some type of danger the dog is going to remain in the car."

Opponents claim the ruling violates civil rights and unfairly
intimidates motorists who may have only committed minor traffic

"As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissent, the use of these dogs
changes the character and nature of the traffic stop from a simple
interaction between police officer and citizen to a menacing
experience in which many individuals feel threatened," said the
American Civil Liberties Union in a press release Monday.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin