Supreme Court to consider dog justification for drug searches
Aldo the German shepherd and Franky the chocolate Lab are drug-detecting dogs who have been retired to opposite ends of the ultimate retiree state.
But their work is still being evaluated, and today it will be before the Supreme Court. The justices must decide whether man’s best friend is an honest broker as blind to prejudice as Lady Justice, or as prone as the rest of us to a bad day at the office or the manipulation of our partners.
The Supreme Court in the past has tended to agree with the first view. Justice John Paul Stevens, now retired, wrote for the court in a 2005 case that a drug-sniffing dog reveals “no information other than the location of a substance that no individual has any right to possess.”
But the two cases on the docket present an aggressive challenge to the notion that a dog’s “alert” to the presence of drugs is enough to legally justify a search of someone’s home or vehicle.
Florida v. Jardines asks whether it was constitutional for the Miami-Dade County police, acting on a tip, to bring Franky to Joelis Jardines’s front door. Franky noticed the smell of marijuana, the police used that to obtain a warrant, and Jardines was arrested on suspicion of turning his home into a “grow house.”
Florida v. Harris asks a more basic question of whether judges should be skeptical of Fido’s qualifications. It builds on research that shows a high rate of false alerts and cases of manipulation by a dog’s handler.
Justice David Souter, also now retired, sounded the alarm about the reliability of police canines in his dissent in the 2005 case, writing that the “infallible dog . . . is a creation of legal fiction.”
The Florida Supreme Court went further last year in the Harris case when it threw out the evidence in a 2006 traffic stop in the Florida Panhandle that featured Aldo.
“Courts often accept the mythic dog with an almost superstitious faith,” Justice Barbara Pariente wrote. “The myth so completely has dominated the judicial psyche in those cases that the courts either assume the reliability of the sniff or address the question cursorily; the dog is the clear and consistent winner.”
The Florida court said that judges should look at the “totality of circumstances,” including a dog’s training and certification records, field performance, and evidence of the handler’s training and experience.