Critics: U.S. Supreme Court takes wrong tack in dog-alert cases

In a 2011 decision in neighboring Florida, that state’s Supreme Court considered in a drug crimes case the issue of when a police dog’s alert provides a law enforcement officer with the probable cause needed for a warrantless search of a person and vehicle.

The Court ruled that evidence that a dog is trained and certified in detecting illegal drugs is not enough to pass constitutional muster. Rather, the Court held that state officials must introduce additional evidence regarding the dog’s reliability, such as the number of times, for example, that the animal was correct and incorrect in signaling the presence of marijuana or another illegal substance.

That ruling was overturned last month by the United States Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that “a court can presume” a valid search in any case where a trained police dog alerted the presence of drugs, even if that canine assessment turned out to be incorrect.

Critics of that ruling say that it is a manifest intrusion on personal freedom and the right of citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. The standard, they say, was correctly enunciated by the Florida court, especially given the real-world results of police dog alerts.

Those results have been shown as abysmal in many cases, with the result that police can still conduct a search even though there is no incriminating evidence to be found. Moreover, critics note that there is no national standard whatever for training and evaluating dogs’ performances.

The Supreme Court ruling illogically reverses the burden in an “alert” case, opponents of the ruling say, because it forces the defense to prove a dog’s unreliability rather than requiring the state to do so. The police have control over all the evidence relating to training and performance, and they should simply be required to produce it, rather than forcing discovery, expert testimony and other time-consuming and expensive measures.

With the Court ruling in hand, says one writer who has scrutinized it, “A cop with a dog [now] has the practical power to search the car of anyone who strikes him as suspicious.”

Source: Reason Foundation, “Where does a cop with an 80-pound dog search?” Jacob Sullum, Feb. 27, 2013