Supreme Court Rules For Police Sniffer Dogs

by Mary Haight on February 20, 2013

sniffer dogsSniffer dogs can detect bombs, bedbugs, bacterial infections, contraband, cancer, diabetes, people, wildlife scat, even seizures. It was not canine nose skills in question at yesterday’s Supreme Court session, but a question of accuracy rates, individual privacy rights and limits of police authority.


Do Sniffer Dogs Need Performance Records?

NPR reported that truck driver Clayton Harris was pulled over on a traffic stop, the officer asked if he could search for drugs, the driver refused, the officer took his dog Aldo around the outside of the truck and at some point the dog signaled for drugs present. That was enough to prompt a search. No drugs were found but it was reported that some of the chemicals to make methamphetamine were on-board.

Two months later the same truck driver was pulled over again, and again the officer took his dog around the truck and again Aldo alerted to drug presence. This time there was nothing found. The Florida State Supreme Court decided both searches were illegal and ruled that field performance records must show that the sniffer dog has a reliable record of success, reaching beyond training and certification requirements. The US Supreme Court disagreed yesterday.

A unanimous decision announced by Justice Elena Kagan stated “requiring an inflexible performance checklist as the gold standard for canine reliability defies common sense. Instead courts should generally consider a dog sniff as reliable if the dog has completed and passed a certified training program that includes controlled performance tests.”

Does a Sniff Equal a Search?

In Fall of 2006 on an anonymous tip, Florida police took a trained detection dog to the home of the person of interest, went up to the door and the dog signaled the presence of drugs. A warrant was requested and an arrest was made that yielded 25 lbs of marijuana. The State Supreme Court called the use of the dog an illegal search. The US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Last October during oral arguments the concern that, if the Court ruled in favor of the police, police would have the latitude to walk up and down streets or apartment buildings searching with their dogs was made by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. This position was answered by the attorney who countered with the fact of limited resources and how that and a full roster of duties would be a barrier to such actions. We might hear a decision on this soon.

Sniffer dogs have been in front of the court before but in relation to public spaces, not the home. Howard Blumberg, the lawyer for the defense said “The entire history of the Fourth Amendment really is based on the fact that the home is different.” “It goes all the way back to the early 1600s and the saying that a man’s home is his castle.” Stay tuned!



Photo: Public Domain

Previous post:

Next post: