Court Decides Case Involving an Expired Tag and Drug Sniffing Dogs

drug sniffing dogNormally, most people don't think Supreme Court when they of think traffic tickets.  But what is often overlooked, is the very notion of the legality of a police officer to pull you over, and what is found after you are pulled over.

Think about it.  This situation happens every day.  Have you ever wondered if the police have the right to pull you over?  They do, but only in certain situations.  Having an expired tag, is one of them, and it's what got a Florida man pulled over back in 2006.

What gets interesting, and what happened in the case that caused it to go to the Supreme Court, is what happened after the stop.  The policeman had a drug sniffing dog that gave an alert that drugs might be in the car.  Sure enough, the dog was right and the man was arrested.

However, does the above scenario seem legal?  Was it a violation of the man's 4th amendment right to an unreasonable search and seizure?

The Supreme Court took up this case (and one involving a police dog that stood on a man's front porch and gave an alert that drugs were detected) and really used both cases as a way to explore the reliability of drug sniffing dogs and their use in legally obtaining evidence. 

A new study is calling into question whether these dogs can be relied upon to accurately indicate drugs when, as it turns out, the police handler can cause the dog to give a false indication.  Researchers at the University of California at Davis set up an experiment where they told 18 police dog handlers that they had hidden small amounts of drugs in four rooms of a church and asked them to find which rooms.

Over the course of the experiment, the dogs indicated drugs in every single room.  In fact, they indicated drugs were present 225 times.  Additionally, they found the dogs were twice as likely to indicate drugs if a spot was marked with red paper.  This is very interesting when you consider the handlers were told red paper would be used to indicate drugs. The handlers were, intentionally or not, giving "hidden cues" to the dogs to trigger an alert.

It turns out, in the experiment, there were no drugs at all placed in any of the rooms.

No one questions that dogs have an amazing ability to smell and detect things humans cannot.  What we must question is whether the use of drug sniffing dogs violates our constitutional rights.

If the very tool being used to invade a person's privacy is not accurate or not reliable or not consistent between dog and handler, how can the Supreme Court endorse such a tool? 

However, what's interesting in the Florida case is that the lower court ruled that the evidence was not obtained legally because of the reliability of the dog.  Apparently there is a list of criteria to demonstrate a dog's reliability and the lower court felt the dog did not meet enough of the requirements on the list.

The Supreme Court called into question the very idea of a finite list to make such a determination.  One of the Justices questioned, "Why is that the right list?" and again asked, "What in the Constitution requires that list?"

Those questions would indicate not only the problems the court had with reliability, but in the standards used to determine reliability.

We will find out what the court decides in about 6 months when the decision gets handed down, but it brings up some fascinating arguments.  And to think, it all started with an expired tag.

Stay tuned. . .

UPDATE** The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the police's ability to use drug sniffing dogs.  The justices concluded that the dog's signals were sufficient probable cause for the police to search the vehicle in which the drugs were found.  The court struck down the checklist used in Florida by the Florida Supreme Court.  They argued that evidence of a dog's satisfactory performance in a training program was sufficient. 


Your Thoughts: 

Should the police be able to use dogs to sniff for drugs?  In your car?  On your porch?  Walking on the street or at the airport?