Barking up the wrong tree: Florida drug-sniffing dogs given free rein

The Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures took a big hit recently when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision issued by Florida's highest state court. The U.S. court ruled that any court in the nation can presume that a search is valid if law enforcement officials state it was based on an alert by a drug detection dog.

The underlying case stems from a routine traffic stop in Florida. When the police officer's drug-sniffing dog alerted, the officer searched the vehicle and found ingredients for making methamphetamine, substances a dog would not have been able to detect.

An appeal of the driver's drug conviction went before the Florida Supreme Court that ruled that the dog's alert did not create "probable cause" for the search, an essential element to a lawful search. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court and overturned the ruling.

Concerns raised by the decision

The high court's decision raises a number of criminal defense concerns regarding violations of privacy and regarding proper searches. Based on the decision, drug detection dogs are now, for purposes of establishing a legal reason for a search, treated as expert witnesses without having to provide their success records.

Most states do not have uniform standards for training or certifying drug-sniffing dogs. Nor is there any type of standard procedure verifying that such dogs are continuing to perform accurately. However, police no longer have to demonstrate that a particular drug detection dog is reliable. If a defendant questions the accuracy of a dog, he or she must prove with expert witnesses that the dog's alert was faulty or wrong.

Questioning drug detection dogs

The capabilities of drug-sniffing dogs have long been in dispute. A 2006 study of the usefulness of such dogs concluded that they have proven to be ineffective and unreliable. The researchers further reported that alerts by drug-sniffing dogs led to a high number of public searches during which no drugs were found on those searched.

The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on a case involving another drug-sniffing dog who alerted to marijuana after spending a few minutes sniffing around the front door of a person's home. An adverse ruling in that case can further infringe on the lives of Americans.

Seek legal help

If you have been questioned about or arrested for a crime, seek the help of an experienced criminal defense lawyer to ensure that your rights are protected to the full extent of the law.