Supreme Court Hears Drug Dog Case

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In many drug cases, police first get legal permission to search because a dog indicates the presence of drugs. The dog establishes what is known as probable cause, allowing the police to proceed without permission of the property owner. Now, a case questioning the reliability of this standard method has been argued before the US Supreme Court.

The specific case came out of Florida where two dogs, Franky and Aldo, have been used extensively in drug searches. Franky alerted at the door to a house and was the basis for a search that revealed a marijuana grow operation inside. The trial judge ruled the search illegal since officers were on the property (outside the front door) when Franky alerted. That ruling was overturned on appeal and then reinstated at the Florida Supreme Court level.

Aldo’s case came up when he alerted on the same defendant’s car twice, two months apart. The first time, chemicals used to make meth were found. However, on the second stop, nothing showed up. This called Aldo’s nose into question and the Florida Supreme Court decided that drug dogs might not be as reliable as generally believed. They said that existing certifications didn’t prove reliability to a high enough standard.

It’s a difficult question, not only because the ability of individual animals may vary, but because there doesn’t seem to be a good way to check whether any particular alert was a mistake. Even when no drugs are found, the dog may still be smelling the previous presence of drugs – you can’t ask the dog for particulars. And that’s another problem. When expert witnesses are called into court, they can be cross examined. Dogs cannot.

But if dogs are simply a tool, then, like other tools, there would have to be a clear standard. For example, testing substances for the presence of drugs uses equipment that is standardized and checked for accuracy, something difficult to do with an animal. The microscope doesn’t have an “off day” and isn’t out to please its handler – two criticisms that come up with drug dogs.

Others point out that a dog’s nose ought to be treated much the same as an officer’s. Police commonly report smelling alcohol on a driver’s breath as justification for a field sobriety test.

The case won’t be decided until next year, but a ruling either way will have an impact on how police dogs are used in the field.

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