Can you trust what a dog’s nose knows? Police do, but the Supreme Court on Wednesday considered curbing the use of drug-sniffing dogs in investigations following complaints of illegal searches and insufficient proof of the dogs’ reliability.
Justices seemed concerned about allowing police to bring their narcotic-detecting dogs to sniff around the outside of homes without a warrant and seemed willing to allow defense attorneys to question at trial how well drug dogs have been trained and how well they have been doing their job in the field.
“Dogs make mistakes. Dogs err,” lawyer Glen P. Gifford told the justices. “Dogs get excited and will alert to things like tennis balls in trunks or animals, that sort of thing.”
But Justice Department attorney Joseph R. Palmore warned justices not to let the questioning of dog skills go too far because dogs also are used to detect bomb and protect federal officials and in search-and-rescue operations. “I think it’s critical … that the courts not constitutionalize dog-training methodologies or hold minitrials with expert witnesses on what makes for a successful dog-training program,” he said.
“There are 32 K-9 teams in the field right now in New York and New Jersey looking for survivors of Hurricane Sandy,” Mr. Palmore added. “So, in situation after situation, the government has in a sense put its money where its mouth is, and it believes at an institutional level that these dogs are quite reliable.”
The arguments Wednesday revolved around the work of Franky and Aldo, two drug-sniffing dogs used by police departments in Florida.
Franky’s case arose from the December 2006 arrest of Joelis Jardines at a Miami-area house where 179 marijuana plants were confiscated. Miami-Dade police officers obtained a search warrant after Franky detected the odor of pot from outside the front door. The trial judge agreed with Mr. Jardines‘ attorney that the dog’s sniff was an unconstitutional intrusion into the home and threw out the evidence.
A Florida appeals court reversed that ruling, but the state Supreme Court sided with the original judge.
The Florida Supreme Court also threw out work done by Aldo, a drug-sniffing dog used by the Liberty County sheriff. Aldo alerted his officer to the scent of drugs used to make methamphetamine inside a truck during a 2006 traffic stop, and Clayton Harris was arrested. Two months later, Mr. Harris was stopped again. Aldo again alerted his officer to the presence of drugs, but none were found.
The Florida Supreme Court justices ruled that saying a drug dog has been trained and certified to detect narcotics is not enough to establish the dog’s reliability in court.
The state of Florida appealed both cases to the Supreme Court.
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