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"I've got probable cause to search the vehicle without her permission or not"

June 23, 2014

A federal appeals court has ruled that a pair of southern Utah police officers did not have probable cause to search a California woman’s car, keeping her on the side of the road for hours.

Police claimed they had probable cause to the vehicle of 54-year-old Sherida Felders because she was nervous, had an air freshener and her license plate holder said "Jesus."

Utah State Trooper Brian Bairett was running a speed trap on I-15 when Felders drove through. Bairett accused Felders and her two teen sons in the vehicle of transporting cocaine.

A K-9 unit from a different department was called to the scene. Bairett explained the situation to the dog's handler, Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Malcom.

"This lady -- you know, I walk up to the car and I see air fresheners in the center console and... I start talking to her, you know, just 'So where, you heading to?' 'Oh going to Colorado,' blah, blah, blah," Trooper Bairett said. "To me, I've got probable cause to search the vehicle without her permission or not, so I figured the dog would be the best route to go right now."

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Trooper Bairett ordered two teenage passengers out of the Jeep, along with the Chihuahua that was riding in the back. Deputy Malcom explained he intended to leave the door open when the teenagers got out. Dashcam footage recorded what happened.

"Nice of them to leave the door open for you," Deputy Malcom said.

"Yeah it was, wasn't it?" Trooper Bairett responded.

According tot he lawsuit, then the drug dog, named Duke, walked around the car and jumped right through the open door without alerting. Once inside, the dog alerted to the center console. It had two packages of beef jerky. The dog next alerted on the driver's door, which contained nothing. The lower court found the search improper and refused to grant immunity, so Deputy Malcom appealed.

"We agree with the district court that Malcom did not have probable cause to search the car prior to Duke's alert and that the law was then clearly established that, absent probable cause, facilitating a dog's entry into a vehicle during a dog sniff constitutes an unconstitutional search," Judge Timothy M. Tymkovich wrote for the appellate panel. "Taking the facts in the light most favorable to Felders, we conclude that fact questions exist regarding the timing of Duke's alert and Malcom's possible facilitation prior to an alert. As a result, we affirm the district court's decision to deny Malcom summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds."

The court rejected Deputy Malcom's attempt to argue that he was just working on his fellow officer's claim that there was probable cause. The appellate judges said the deputy should have known better.