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United States v. Bentley

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 28, 2015

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
LARRY BENTLEY, Defendant-Appellant

Argued December 11, 2014

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 10-10108-001 -- James E. Shadid, Chief Judge.

For United States of America, Plaintiff - Appellee: John Michael Pellettieri, Attorney, Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Washington, DC; Greggory R. Walters, Attorney, Office of The United States Attorney, Peoria, IL.

For Larry Bentley, Jr., Defendant - Appellant: Beau B. Brindley, Attorney, Law Offices of Beau B. Brindley, Chicago, IL.

Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and FLAUM and MANION, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

Wood, Chief Judge.

A great many police departments rely on trained dogs to detect hidden drugs (or other substances, including explosives, blood, and human remains). Nagging questions remain, however, about the accuracy of the dog's performance, especially when a dog's alert provides the sole basis for a finding of probable cause to search or arrest someone.

In Larry Bentley's case, a police officer initiated a traffic stop after observing Bentley's vehicle cross into another lane on an Illinois highway without signaling. After stopping Bentley, the officer decided to call for a drug-detection dog named Lex. Once on the scene, Lex alerted, and the officers found close to 15 kilograms of cocaine in the vehicle.

But what if Lex alerts every time he is called upon? The fact that drugs are (or are not) found would have nothing to do with his behavior. That, in essence, is what Bentley is arguing here. The evidence Bentley was able to gather suggests that Lex is lucky the Canine Training Institute doesn't calculate class rank. If it did, Lex would have been at the bottom of his class. Nevertheless, in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Florida v. Harris, 133 S.Ct. 1050, 185 L.Ed.2d 61 (2013), which addressed the use of drug-detection dogs, we conclude that the district judge did not err when he decided that Lex's alert, along with the other evidence relating to the stop, was sufficient to support probable cause. Bentley's other two challenges based on the traffic stop and his alleged lack of knowledge of the cocaine in the vehicle also fail. We thus affirm his conviction.

I

On October 14, 2010, Aaron Veerman, an officer with the Bloomington (Illinois) Police Department, ran a license check on a Chrysler Pacifica he observed at a Circle K convenience store. Veerman learned that the car was registered to Tonya Smith of Kankakee, Illinois, but that Smith's driver's license had expired 18 years earlier. Officer Veerman followed the car onto I-55 and stayed with it until the driver committed a lane violation. At that point, he signaled for the car to pull over. When it did, he learned that Tonya Smith was not driving the car; Larry Bentley was. Veerman explained to Bentley that he had seen the car commit lane violations and wanted to make sure he was all right. Bentley first informed Veerman that he was driving from Chicago to his home in St. Louis and that Smith was his girlfriend. He then fumbled, said that Smith lived with him in St. Louis, and then changed his story again and said that she actually lived in Kankakee, but often stayed with him in Missouri. Bentley handed over a valid driver's license and some documents (including proof of insurance) from the glove compartment. Another officer, Nikolai Jones, arrived during this exchange and with a flashlight observed a spare tire in the back seat of the car. The two officers spoke and then radioed for a drug-detection dog.

Officer Justin Shively responded and brought Lex, a trained drug dog, to the scene. Bentley agreed to get out of the car and to allow the officers to search him while Lex was sniffing. The officers found $1,699 in cash in Bentley's pockets--far more than the " couple hundred" to which Bentley had admitted. The officers also found a cell phone, nine money orders for a total of $5,600, and a wallet that contained three more money orders adding up to $900. Meanwhile, Lex alerted to drugs in the car. Sure enough, officers found nearly 15 kilograms of cocaine in a trap compartment.

Bentley was later charged by a federal grand jury with possession with intent to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine. 21 U.S.C. ยง 841(a)(1). After an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Bentley's motion to suppress. It found that Officer Veerman had both probable cause and reasonable suspicion to stop Bentley, because even though the officer did not see who the driver was, the officer knew that the owner of the vehicle did not have a valid license and the officer observed a lane violation. The court also found that Lex was reliable enough as a drug-detection dog to establish probable cause. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Bentley. The ...


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