Supreme Court to Decide Dog Sniffing Cases on Halloween

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 20, 2012

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On Halloween, the Supreme Court will hear two “dog sniffing” cases about whether or not a police dog’s interest is enough to provide the police probable cause to obtain a warrant or to conduct a warrantless search. These dog sniff cases will test the limits of a citizen’s right to privacy in light of the increasingly important function police dogs serve in preventing crime. 

In the first case a driver was arrested after a warrantless search uncovered drugs in his vehicle.  The car was searched because a police dog indicated the presence of drug contraband.  Although the dog correctly identified the presence of drugs, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the dog’s indication of contraband did not provide sufficient cause to search the vehicle.  The United States Supreme Court will determine if this was the correct decision.

In the second case, a police drug dog took interest in the defendant’s house, which provided the police enough probable cause to get a warrant and search the home.  The police found a stash of marijuana plants, and the defendant was promptly arrested.  The Florida Supreme Court also overturned the conviction in this case, ruling that the dog’s interest was not sufficient to give the police probable cause to search the home.

After the State of Florida appealed both decisions to the Supreme Court, eighteen other states came out in support of the appeal by arguing that police dogs serve a critical function in police investigation.  The argument boils down to how reliable police dogs are, and many states have argued that the dogs are a valuable tool for police that should be trusted to provide probable cause to conduct a search or obtain a warrant.

When the Police May Search a Suspect’s Property

As police dogs become more widely used to detect drugs, bombs, or other illegal contraband, the rules and procedures police must follow will need to adjust accordingly.  The Constitution generally requires police to have a warrant before they search a suspect or their property.  In order to get a warrant, the police must present enough evidence to demonstrate they have probable cause – meaning the police must be able to show a judge that it is likely the suspect is in possession of evidence of a crime. 

Probable cause does not have a specific definition, but it is generally accepted that a warrant can only be issued if a reasonable or prudent person would believe that a suspect had either committed a crime or had evidence of a crime in their possession.  Police must be able to demonstrate that their suspicion of a suspect is legitimate in order to get a warrant, and usually cannot conduct a search without one.

The police may only conduct a search of personal property without a warrant under very limited circumstances.  Law enforcement can search a home without a warrant if they suspect evidence is being destroyed or a crime is being committed. Police may only search a vehicle without a warrant if: the driver consents to the search, illegal paraphernalia is in plain view during a routine traffic stop, the driver is arrested, swift action is necessary to catch a criminal or to prevent a crime, or the police have probable cause suspect a crime is or has been committed. These exceptions to the requirement that police obtain a warrant are rare becuase the Constitution places heavy emphasis on the right to due process before a search or an arrest.

Are Police Dogs Reliable?

Whether obtaining a warrant or conducting a search without one, the police must be able to show probable cause for their actions.  These cases will help determine whether or not police dogs are considered reliable enough to provide the police with  sufficient cause to take action.  In each case, the police dog proved to be correct, but that does not necessarily justify a universal acceptance of dog sniffing as sufficient probable cause.

Courts have accepted that police dogs in public places such as airports or entertainment and sporting venues can provide police cause to conduct searches, but the new dog sniffing cases are different because they involve searches of private property.  While there is no question that police dogs are impressive animals, allowing them to be the sole indicator to justify a search of private property is a significant leap, and the Supreme Court’s decision in the dog sniffing cases will set an important precedent in police procedure going forward.

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