Thursday, August 18, 2016

Traffic Stops and Nothing More Does not Justify a Canine Screen

State v. Alvarez (HSC June 30, 2016)
Background. Elujino Alvarez was driving a vehicle and stopped by the police because the police saw that one of the passengers was not wearing a seatbelt. The officers recognized Alvarez from prior unrelated drug investigations and called another officer to come to the scene with his police dog to conduct a canine screening on the car. They waited for the dog and the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics. Alvarez was arrested. The police obtained a search warrant for the car and found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. Alvarez moved to suppress the evidence. The motion was denied. Alvarez entered a conditional plea allowing to appeal the denial of the motion. The ICA affirmed the denial. Alvarez applied for a writ of cert.

Traffic Stops, the Fourth Amendment, and You. “A stop of a vehicle for an investigatory purpose constitutes a seizure within the meaning of the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.” State v. Estabillio, 121 Hawaii 261, 270, 218 P.3d 749, 758 (2009). A traffic stop is deemed “reasonable” when (1) the officer has reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and (2) the search that was “actually conducted was reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” State v. Perez, 111 Hawaii 392, 397, 141 P.3d 1039, 1044 (2006).

The first part is not in dispute. Officers had reasonable suspicion to detain Alvarez’s car. On eof the passengers was unbuckled. A traffic violation gives rise to detain the vehicle. State v. Kaleohano, 99 Hawaii 370, 378, 56 P.3d 138, 146 (2002). The second part, however, is problematic for the police.

The scope of a traffic stop is “truly temporary” and must “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the detention.” Estabillio, 121 Hawaii 270, 218 P.3d at 758. Not only must be limited in time, but it must be limited in intensity. The search must be limited to that which is justified by the stop.

The Detention Lasted Longer in Scope and Intensity. The HSC agreed with Alvarez that the traffic stop was excessive. Alvarez was stopped because a passenger was seen without a seatbelt. The officers saw no drugs or related paraphernalia. There was nothing justifying them to get a canine screen of the vehicle for drugs. The fact that a confidential informant told the officers that Alvarez was dealing crystal methamphetamine five days before the stop is not enough. The HSC vacated the conviction and remanded for further proceedings.


When the Tip CAN Justify the Search. The HSC expressly noted that he anonymous tip about drug dealing was not enough to keep Alvarez there and subject him and his car to a canine screen. However, there are circumstances when it can. According to the HSC, when the informant is known to law enforcement, courts can then determine if that person had reliable information in the past, or if there is an adequate factual basis that the person is a reliable informant. State v. Ward, 62 Haw. 459, 461, 617 P.2d 565, 567 (1980); State v. Joao, 55 Haw. 601, 602-604, 525 P.2d 580, 582-583 (1974).

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