How far can police go in using drug-sniffing dogs? Can law enforcement have dogs literally sniff around a house to determine if there is probable cause to obtain a search warrant? Do traffic cops have the authority to search a car for drugs if trained drug-sniffing dogs indicate drugs are in the vehicle?
The U.S. Supreme Court will answer those questions stemming from two Florida cases. The justices heard arguments in back-to-back sessions last week.
In one case, Joelis Jardines was arrested at his Miami-area house after 179 marijuana plants were confiscated. Miami-Dade police officers obtained a search warrant after a narcotics dog detected the odor of pot from outside the front door. One court ruled it unconsitutional and another ruled it legal.
In the other case, a drug-sniffing dog alerted a traffic cop to the scent of drugs used to make methamphetamine inside a truck. The dog was right and Clayton Harris was arrested. When he was stopped again by the same officer and dog, the dog was wrong, bringing the first stop into question.
Allowing dogs to sniff a house — or an entire neighborhood — clearly violates the protections against illegal searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. If Jardines’ conviction is allowed to stand then police across the nation could use drug-sniffing dogs in a vast number of places to obtain the probable cause necessary to secure a search warrant.
This is exactly the type of thing the Founding Fathers aimed to prevent.
Drug-sniffing dogs should be used only after law enforcement has reasonable suspicion of illegal activity and has obtained a legal warrant to search. Dogs can then be used to find the drugs that might, for example, be hidden in the walls.
However, dogs could be used to randomly search at an airport where every person who goes through the security gate understands they might be subject to a search.
The second case isn’t as clear. When officers make traffic stops they have to make quick decisions for their safety. When officers have trained drug-sniffing dogs with them they presume the dogs are correct. To ignore the dog could put their lives in jeopardy. Drug dealers are often armed.
The issue is whether the government is using dogs as a way to conduct random searches.
Clearly the police agencies have confidence their dogs are well trained and effective at their jobs.
The attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, arguing in favor of using the dogs, said there “are 32 K-9 teams in the field right now in New York and New Jersey looking for survivors of Hurricane Sandy. So, in situation after situation, the government has in a sense put its money where its mouth is, and it believes at an institutional level that these dogs are quite reliable.”
That’s a reasonable conclusion. However, it also seems reasonable for defense attorneys to challenge the skill of individual drug-sniffing dogs, particularly if the dog has had a history of mistakes.
Searching cars with dogs could be constitutional under certain circumstances, but allowing dogs to sniff around houses is clearly an unconstitutional activity.