Introduction: I love dogs but do I love dogs who are cops?

We at the Combs Law Group love furry little friends more than the next person. However, when your furry little friend is suddenly being used to search your house or your vehicle for evidence that could put you away in prison for years your love might start to dwindle. The fact is that K-9 units are being used for drug detection more than ever before, and you’ll see them more often than the airport or for large-scale drug busts. Nowadays, K-9 units are an integral part of police work and so you need to be aware of what these K-9 drug detection units can do and what happens if you are searched by one. 

K-9 Units in Missouri 

The first K-9 program in Missouri started in 1988 by the Missouri State Highway Patrol with just four K-9 units. Today, there are ten K-9 teams in the Highway State Patrol. 

Dogs are chosen to be trained for police dog purposes when they show an aptitude for scents, being inquisitive and attentive. Most dogs undergo training for several different skillsets (such as drug and explosive detection), though some specialize in one area. For example, German Shepard dogs may train for multiple skills, while bloodhounds will only be trained for tracking purposes as their breed excels in that area but aren’t as good as more athletic breeds for crowd control and other skillsets. 

Both handler and dog need to undergo specialized training in order to be a part of a K-9 drug detection unit, and dogs can be trained to find specific drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.  

K-9 units are a vital member of the law enforcement team when it comes to drug detection, evidence searches, tracking of criminals and missing people, crowd control, explosive detection, and officer protection. 

What K-9 Units Can Do

K-9 units are often deployed in situations where large volumes of drugs are being trafficked, where someone may hide an explosive device, to search for missing people or offenders who have fled the scene, and as a psychological deterrent in crowd situations. K-9 units may be deployed to schools and mass gatherings when necessary. 

If a K-9 unit is present when you are stopped for a traffic violation they are legally allowed to walk the dog around your vehicle and if the dog gives a signal that drugs are present. If this is the case, the officers have probable cause to search your vehicle without your permission, and you can be legally charged for possessing the drugs inside your vehicle. 

Can police officers make you wait for a K-9 unit to arrive if you are stopped? 

No, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that it was unlawful to hold suspects during a traffic stop. The police can only hold you without charge for a short time, and going even a few minutes over a reasonable timeframe violates your Constitutional rights. 

What should I do if they force me to submit to a K-9 search? 

If they do try to force you to wait for a K-9 unit to search your vehicle ensure you follow all normal requests such as showing them your license and registration. A police officer may only detain for as long as it takes to address the reason for stopping you, so answer his questions if they are reasonable and you want to be cooperative, but remember your Miranda rights (the right to remain silent). They should issue you a warning or citation for your fault, and then you should be free to leave. Ask them if you are free to do so. 

If they have reason to suspect you may have something unlawful in the vehicle they don’t need your permission, provided there is probable cause to do so. They cannot freely search your vehicle without this or your permission. The same goes if they have a K-9 unit with them. If they don’t have probable cause you should be free to leave and if they detain you after that it is unlawful. 

Unfortunately, if your rights are being violated there isn’t much you can do in the moment, so don’t be aggressive or try to leave. If they have violated your constitutional rights your criminal defense lawyer will have solid grounds to ask for your case to be dismissed, regardless of what substances were found in your vehicle. 

See the event through and contact a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. 

What do K-9 units primarily do in Missouri?

K-9 units primarily work on drug detection on our highways. 

K-9 Terminology 

K-9 units have their own terminology you can listen out for. 

The “handler” is the officer in the unit who has undergone training to work with the dog and interpret their signals. 

“Alert” means the dog has given a signal to their handler that they think drugs are present. 

“Hit” means they have found drugs. 

“Miss” or “False Alert” are terms used following an alert if the officer believes that no drugs are present at this time. 

K-9 Drug Searches Off the Highway 

K-9 drug searches don’t only occur on our highways, there are several other places a K-9 unit may be brought in to search for the presence of drugs. These are places like the airport, homes, business premises. 

Can K-9 units legally search me in an airport?

Yes and no. After the case the United States vs Place, in which a man aroused suspicion and had his bags taken and sniffed by a drug detection dog, the laws changed. Place’s suitcases were detained from the Friday, when the dog aroused suspicion, until the following Monday when a warrant was obtained. They found over a kilogram of cocaine inside. 

Place’s defense tried to argue that his luggage was unlawfully searched, but the district court believed the officers had probable cause to do so. 

K-9 units may sniff-search your luggage in an airport, as this does not involve searching your luggage and does not count as a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. 

Can a K-9 unit approach my property without my permission? 

No, an officer needs probable cause to bring a drug detection dog onto your porch and near your front door. You have a right to privacy in your own home, so police need probable cause to search your home or you need to give them consent to do so. If a K-9 unit comes onto your porch or to your front door without your consent they have violated your rights. 

What happens if a K-9 unit detects drugs in my possession elsewhere? 

If you come into contact with a K-9 unit and they detect dogs on you in circumstances other than those mentioned, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can assess the situation and act accordingly. 

Can K-9 searches be conducted in schools?

This is a murky area, but yes, they are legally allowed to use K-9 units during unannounced, random searches. This is because school children cannot retain a reasonable expectation of privacy in schools. However, the legalities of this in court are a little less clear cut, so if your son or daughter is caught in possession during an unannounced search it’s important you get an accomplished criminal defense lawyer to defend your child. 

Can K-9 units search a business without permission?

No, the same Fourth Amendment rights apply to all public and private buildings, other than schools and airports. They need to have probable cause or a warrant in order to search. 

Are K-9 Drug Charges Misdemeanours or Felonies? 

K-9 drug charges aren’t any different than normal drug charges, so unless you are found to be in possession of a small amount of Marijuana (less than 10 grams) which is a misdemeanor, your charge will be a felony. See our article on Missouri Drug Possession Laws for more information. 

Felony charges are extremely serious and come with hefty penalties (prison time and large fines), so it’s important to seek out an experienced criminal defense lawyer 

Can Drug Detection Dogs Tell The Difference Between Hemp and Marijuana?

No, they can’t, and often the officers with them can’t tell either. In January 2019, a truck was stopped in Idaho with 7,000lbs of hemp, which the officers and K-9 unit determined to be marijuana, despite the driver telling them otherwise. 

A few weeks later the substance was indeed found to be hemp and the charges were dropped, but the company who owned the hemp decided to sue. 

What should I do if I’m stopped with hemp? 

If you are stopped for a traffic violation you don’t need to tell the officer you have hemp in your possession, since it is a legal substance. If things escalate to a point where a K-9 unit has alerted the officers to the presence of hemp, calmly tell the officers that’s what it is. There’s a chance they will still arrest you, so stay calm – you are in the right. Follow their instructions and contact a criminal defense lawyer to defend you, should you need to. 

If you have hemp that is already infused with another product you shouldn’t have a problem, but if a K-9 search alerts on the product remain calm and state that it contains hemp. Follow their instructions and contact a criminal defense lawyer, should you need to. 

In both circumstances, however, once the substance has been tested in the lab the charges will be dropped. You may want to talk to a lawyer along the way, especially if the charges have caused damage to your life or business. 

What Should I Do If I’m Stopped and Have Drugs in My Vehicle?

If you see flashing lights in your rearview mirror and knowingly have drugs in your possession, pull over when it is safe to do so. Comply with the officer’s requests to see your license and registration, and provided you have no outstanding charges or warrants, they should only issue you a ticket for your traffic violation. 

The officer may try to trick you into admitting you have drugs in your vehicle by telling you a K-9 unit is on the way. Do not do so. As discussed above, it is unlawful for them to detain you for this purpose. You also do not need to let them search your vehicle unless they have probable cause to do so. 

If they have no reason to suspect you have drugs in your possession, you should be able to take your ticket politely and drive away. 

If this is not the case and you are arrested read on to the next section. 

What Should I Do If I’m Charged for Drugs a K-9 Unit Found? 

K-9 drug charges can be a challenge to defend, so ensure you seek out the very best criminal defense lawyer you can who can act quickly to put together your defense to get your charges reduced or dismissed, where possible. 

Often in K-9 drug stop-and-search charges, your lawyer will try to dispute whether or not the officers involved in your case violated your Fourth Amendment rights. Provided you at no time admitted to having drugs in your possession, they may be able to do so. 

If you do decide to admit to having drugs in your possession, as may be wise if you have less than 10 grams of marijuana in your possession that you believe they will find in their search, your lawyer will use this honesty to try and get your charges reduced significantly. 

An experienced criminal lawyer will have a good chance of reducing your charges provided you did not resist arrest at any time. 

If you are found to be in possession of illegal substances by a K-9 unit, you need to get an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side as soon as possible. Drug possession charges can be extremely serious in St. Louis, Missouri, so you need to do all you can to get the charges minimized. 

We have extensive experience in drug possession charges and a long list of satisfied past clients who have avoided a felony conviction or had their charges reduced significantly. If you need our help, we’re here for you. We offer free consultations and around-the-clock support for our clients. Click here to contact us today.

About Chris Combs

A St. Louis native and graduate of Saint Louis University Law School, Chris Combs has been recognized as one of St. Louis' top criminal defense and personal injury attorneys. He is passionate about getting positive results for all his clients and values personal communication above all.

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