US Supreme Court says dog’s alert enough for warrantless vehicle search

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a decision in a case regarding the intersection of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and drug-sniffing dogs used during traffic stops.

The case, Florida v. Harris, arose when a law enforcement officer stopped a motorist because he was driving a vehicle with expired license plate tags. During the traffic stop, the police officer believed the driver was acting as if he were under the influence of drugs. The driver refused the officer's request to search the vehicle, so the officer walked Aldo, his drug-sniffing dog, around the car.

Aldo alerted to the presence of drugs outside the driver's door. Upon searching the vehicle, the police officer found substances used to manufacture methamphetamine. Although Aldo had not been trained to detect the substances found in the vehicle, the evidence was used to establish drug crime charges.

The driver was convicted, but the Florida Supreme Court later reversed the conviction, stating Aldo's reliability at detecting drugs had not been shown. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the state should have provided additional evidence of the drug-sniffing dog's ability to detect drugs.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court's decision. Justice Kagan, writing for the unanimous majority, held that the information already provided to the court to prove Aldo's effectiveness was sufficient. Consequently, Aldo's alert, even though he had not been trained to detect the substance found, was considered adequate to justify the ensuing warrantless search.

Are drug-sniffing dogs reliable?

The concern following this recent decision involves the question of how accurate drug-sniffing dogs actually are in the field. A number of studies have been conducted focusing on this issue, with disconcerting results.

One study, conducted in 2011 and published in Animal Cognition, cast a particularly dark cloud over the effectiveness of drug-detecting dogs. The researchers arranged a number of tests in which drug-sniffing dogs and their handlers could participate. Of the 144 tests, the drug-detecting dogs provided inaccurate alerts 123 times.

The tests were designed to trick either the dogs or the handlers. The study revealed that the drug-sniffing dogs are likely influenced by their handlers, as they were two times more likely to provide false alerts when the test was made to trick the handler.

In the wake of this decision, it is particularly important for those accused of drug crimes to seek the counsel of a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney, to ensure a strong defense is established on their behalf.