On October 17, 2018 the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania held in Commonwealth v. Valdivia that a canine sniff of Defendant Randy Valdivia’s vehicle exceeded the scope of consent he had give police to search his car following a traffic stop. The Court held that for that reason the approximately 20 pounds of marijuana found in Valdivia’s car should have been suppressed. Accordingly, the case was remanded for further proceedings in which the Commonwealth will not be allowed to use the unlawfully obtained marijuana as evidence.
Two Pennsylvania State Police troopers pulled Valdivia over on Interstate 80 in Centre County around 4:30 pm on December 12, 2013, for changing lanes without using a turn signal. Valdivia, who was driving a rental van from Ann Arbor, Michigan and had a Florida driver’s license, was nervous and his hand was shaking during the traffic stop. The troopers observed two large boxes wrapped in Christmas paper in the back of the van, and they suspected the boxes may contain drugs. During the course of the traffic stop, the troopers requested a state police K-9 officer to come to the scene with his canine to conduct a search of the vehicle. Without notifying Valdivia that a dog was on the way to assist in the search, the troopers asked for Valdivia’s consent to search the vehicle, and Valdivia consented. The K-9 officer and his dog arrived approximately 40 minutes later. Prior to the arrival of the dog, neither trooper searched Valdivia’s vehicle. The dog indicated the presence of contraband in one of the Christmas packages. The troopers opened both boxes and found vacuum-sealed packages containing marijuana.
Valdivia was subsequently charged with Possession of a Controlled Substance – Marijuana – With Intent to Deliver. He filed a pre-trial suppression motion claiming the canine sniff and the lengthy delay preceding the sniff exceeded the scope of his consent to search, and all evidence obtained as a result of the search should be suppressed. The trial court denied Valdivia’s suppression motion, and upon appeal the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s denial. Valdivia appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which granted review of whether Valdivia’s consent encompassed a canine sniff conducted forty minutes later.
The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Superior Court, holding that under the circumstances the canine sniff exceeded the scope of Valdivia’s consent to search the vehicle. At the heart of the Court’s decision was the principle that, even when an individual gives general consent to the search without express limitation, the search cannot exceed what a reasonable person would expect based on his or her consent. In this case, the Court held that a reasonable person in Valdivia’s situation would have expected this his consent was given for an immediate search of his vehicle by the two troopers that were present at the time of the initial traffic stop. Valdivia could not have reasonably expected that his consent included a search by a drug sniffing dog that arrived on scene forty minutes later.
What is important to take away from Commonwealth v. Valdivia is that while an individual can provide explicit limitation on the scope of his or her consent, not doing so does not give a police officer unrestrained authority to search. Even when an individual gives general consent to search the subsequent search is limited by what a reasonable person could expect he or she consented to. It is also very important to remember that you do not have to give your consent to search when a police officer asks for it – you are well within your rights and are doing nothing wrong if you decline to give consent for a search of your person/property. If you do not give consent and no other exception to the warrant requirement exists, an officer must get a search warrant issued by a neutral and detached magistrate. To get a search warrant an officer must show probable cause that specifically identified items will be found in a specifically identified location.