Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Page 3


C.A. Upholds Warrantless Search Based on Alert by ‘Reliable’ Dog


By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer


An alert by a well-trained narcotics detection dog was sufficient to establish probable cause for law enforcement offices to conduct a warrantless search of a backpack in the bed of a pickup truck, Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

The justices said the dog, named Tommy, was “reliable,” and that he did not violate the Fourth Amendment by poking his nose into the bed of the truck driven by Robin Conley Briggs and Darla Ann Stillwell.

Marysville Police Department Matthew Minton testified that he had detained the truck because the license plate was obscured by the rear bumper and the license plate lamp was not functioning.

After effecting a traffic stop, Minton said he began to suspect Briggs was under the influence of a narcotic or driving while intoxicated because Briggs’ eyes seemed glassy, and his pupils were fixed. Minton then radioed for assistance from Officer Christopher Miller.

Miller said he arrived at the scene about two minutes later, and asked Briggs to step out of the truck. Minton began conducting sobriety tests on Briggs, who admitted he had taken methadone earlier in the day.

Briggs declined the officers’ request to let them take a look inside the truck, and this, the officers said, combined with Minton’s observations of Briggs, led them to suspect that Briggs might have a controlled substance or something illegal in the vehicle.

Miller then brought his dog Tommy over to the truck. The duo had been working together since 2008, and Tommy was certified to detect odors of cocaine base, cocaine powder, methamphetamine, marijuana, and heroin. 

Tommy, the officers said, started following Miller around the truck, but at the rear tire on the driver’s side, doubled back toward the front of the vehicle. Miller said the dog then stood up on his hind legs with his front paws on the side of the truck and sniffed over the bed of the pickup before dropping into a “sit/stare alert” at a backpack in the truck bed.

Miller opened the backpack and found several chemical containers, a 500 milliliter glass beaker, and a small gray bottle that contained several white pills.  Based on his training and experience, Miller identified these items as parts of a methamphetamine lab. Minton then placed Briggs and Stillwell under arrest.

A search warrant was eventually obtained and executed at a residence shared by Briggs and Stillwell where law enforcement agents found several items indicative of the manufacturing process for methamphetamine.

Briggs and Stillwell moved to suppress all the evidence found in their home as stemming from an illegal search of the backpack, but Sutter Superior Court Judge H. Ted Hansen denied their motion.

Hansen found the initial traffic stop had been justified, and said he was “not swayed at all that the search…became illegal or unconstitutional because the dog’s nose happened to extend into the bed once the dog alerted.”

Following Hansen’s ruling, Briggs and Stillwell pled no contest to several drug and weapons possession charges arising from the searches of the truck and their home. Biggs was sentenced to 12 years in prison and Stillwell to 10 years.

Biggs and Stillwell appealed, contending Hansen had erred in denying their suppression motion since Tommy was not reliable, and that a dog alert, standing alone, could not provide probable cause to search a vehicle. They also argued Tommy invaded the vehicle by putting his front paws on the truck and sniffing above and inside the truck bed, thereby turning the dog sniff into an illegal Fourth Amendment search.

Justice Ronald B. Robie, in his decision for the appellate court, rejected each of these contentions. He reasoned that the evidence showing the annual certification process for a drug detection dog was sufficient to support a finding that Tommy was “well-trained and thus, reliable.”

Robie explained that under California law, a well-trained dog’s alert can provide the probable cause needed for a search warrant and that a “sniff of the exterior of a pickup truck does not amount to a ‘search’ under the Fourth Amendment.”

The justice added that Tommy’s action of standing up on his hind legs and putting his front paws on the side of the truck in order to stick his nose into the truck bed did not transform his sniff into a Fourth Amendment search.

Such an “instinctive action” by a dog tracing a scent, Robie said, is not unconstitutional.

Justices M. Kathleen Butz and Elena J. Duarte joined Robie in his decision.

The case is People v. Stillwell, 11 S.O.S. 4067.


Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company