On March 27, 2020, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Betts[i], which serves as an excellent review of the law related to investigative detentions and canine sniffs. The relevant facts of Betts, taken directly from the case, are as follows:

Michael Betts drove his vehicle to a commercial parking lot in Salem, Ohio, early one November morning. Curious behavior marked the occasion. Betts was in the parking lot at roughly 1 a.m., when all the adjacent businesses were closed. Betts parked his vehicle in front of a shop that had been frequently burglarized. Betts’s vehicle blocked the shop’s drive-through window. And Betts paced around his vehicle, despite chilly middle-of-the-night November temperatures.

After viewing this episode for more than half an hour, a witness called the police, identified himself, and explained what he had seen. Officer Donald Paulin and another officer were dispatched to the scene. When they arrived, Paulin pulled behind Betts’s vehicle, turned on his emergency lights, and ran a check of Betts’s license plate. Within two minutes, Paulin learned that the plate was invalid. Paulin also knew that the shop Betts was parked in front of had been frequently burglarized through the drive-through window Betts was now blocking.

Upon seeing the emergency police lights, Betts re-entered his vehicle. Paulin approached the vehicle and ordered Betts out. As they spoke, Betts was “sweating profusely” (despite the frigid temperatures) and “talking a lot.” Betts stated that he had driven to the parking lot to get a drink from a nearby vending machine, yet he reportedly had been in the lot for over thirty minutes, pacing around the vehicle. Betts added that he was looking for an address on Arch Street. But the address Betts provided did not exist on Arch Street in Salem—the Arch Street address Betts was looking for, Paulin knew, was an established drug area in neighboring Alliance. At this point, the officers on the scene called for a police dog.

Roughly five minutes after this call, and within eleven minutes of the initial stop, Officer Michael Garber arrived with his police dog, Simon. Garber took Simon for a first pass around Betts’s vehicle. As they passed the trunk, Simon snapped his head and increased his sniffing intensity, an alert behavior to the presence of contraband. During a second pass, Simon again exhibited alert behavior to the presence of contraband near the trunk.

Because neither Betts nor anyone else could legally drive the vehicle due to its invalid license plate, and because the vehicle was blocking a drive-through window, the officers informed Betts that the vehicle needed to be towed. Paulin in turn agreed to Betts’s request that Betts be allowed to call a tow truck himself to have the vehicle towed to a friend’s house. Betts then spoke on his cell phone, but he did not call for a truck. By this point, the police dog had exhibited alert behavior to the presence of contraband. The officers asked Betts if they could search his vehicle. Betts refused. After calling the local prosecutor for legal guidance, the officers searched the vehicle without Betts’s consent. They found marijuana, crack cocaine, heroin, multiple cell phones, a firearm, and a loaded magazine.[ii]

Betts was subsequently indicted for federal drug and firearms violations.  He filed a motion to suppress the evidence, and the district court denied the motion.  He was convicted by a jury and subsequently appealed the denial of his motion to suppress to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit first noted the legal principles that are relevant to the case.  Simply put, the relevant legal principles are as follows:

  • An officer who has reasonable suspicion that a person is involved in criminal activity can stop and detain that person to investigate.
  • The scope of that stop is limited to the original purpose of the stop unless the officer develops reasonable suspicion of some other criminal activity.
  • When a traffic stop has concluded, it is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment to prolong that stop.
  • A free-air canine sniff conducted prior to the completion of a traffic stop is not considered a search for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment.
  • A trained canine that alerts on a vehicle for the presence of contraband provides probable cause to search the vehicle.
  • If a person is detained after the completion of a stop, without reasonable suspicion, to wait on a canine sniff, the subsequent canine sniff and vehicle search would exceed the scope of the stop and violate the Fourth Amendment.[iii]

The court then set out to determine if the officer had sufficient reasonable suspicion to detain Betts.  The court examined the totality of the circumstance in making this determination.  First, the court noted that the complainant who called and reported Betts at that location provided his name and contact information.  A known complainant, or concerned citizen, is afforded more credibility than an anonymous tipster.  Second, Betts was in a parking lot of a closed business late at night.  Third, the business where Betts was parked had been previously burglarized and the suspects entered from the location where Betts was parked.  Fourth, Betts was at that location over thirty-minutes, pacing outside his vehicle on a cold night.  The court of appeals then held that the above facts, in totality, provided sufficient reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify Betts’ initial stop.

The court then noted that when the officer drove up and stopped behind Betts’s car, he checked the license plate and learned it was not valid.  The officer also learned that Betts did not have a valid driver’s license.    The court observed that this provided the officer probable cause to believe that Betts committed a crime, particularly, drove without a valid license and valid tag.  Betts could not be allowed to drive from the scene and the officer agreed to allow Betts to call his own tow truck to tow his vehicle.  However, prior to the arrival of the tow truck, a police canine arrived.

The properly trained canine alerted on the vehicle twice for the presence of illegal drugs.  The officers conducted a warrantless search of the vehicle based on the probable cause provided by the canine alert and located marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and firearm.  Regarding the warrantless search based on the canine alert, the court of appeals stated

To conduct a search of a vehicle, law enforcement officers do not need a warrant—they need only probable cause that the vehicle contains evidence of criminal activity. Taylor, 922 F.3d at 334 (quoting United States v. Smith, 510 F.3d 641, 647 (6th Cir. 2007)). When a well-trained drug dog indicates the presence of contraband in a vehicle, police have probable cause to search the vehicle. Hamaoui, 699 F. App’x at 533 (citing Harris, 568 U.S. at 246-47).[iv]

As such, the initial stop was based on reasonable suspicion and was valid, the continued detention was based on probable cause of tag and license violations and was valid, the canine arrived prior to the conclusion of the stop and alerted on the vehicle, which provided probable cause for a warrantless search of the vehicle.  Thus, the court held that this incident did not violate the Fourth Amendment, and the evidence obtained in the search of the vehicle was admissible.

The court of appeal, therefore, affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.



[i] No. 19-11647 (11th Cir. Decided March 4, 2020, Unpublished)

[ii] Id. at 2-3

[iii] Id. at 4-5

[iv] Id. at 7

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