How much and under what circumstances should police in Pittsburgh and across the U.S. be empowered to search your home or vehicle based on a police dog's nose? That was the question before the Supreme Court last year when it heard oral arguments in two cases involving warrantless police searches justified by dog sniffs. In its first ruling on the cases, the Court unanimously ruled that an accidental identification of drug paraphernalia was rightfully allowed in court -- even though studies have strongly questioned whether dogs actually can be trained to alert police to the presence of illegal drugs.
In the case the Court ruled on, a police dog named Aldo was used during a traffic stop. While police questioned the driver, Aldo "altered" officers toward one of the vehicle's door handles. The officers searched the vehicle and found ingredients for making methamphetamine, which dogs cannot detect. The state supreme court ruled that the search was illegal after examining Aldo's history of successes and failures detecting drugs.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Aldo's record was not as important as "the totality of the circumstances." One of those circumstances may be whether the search was of a vehicle on the road or a private home. In the other case, police brought a police dog to the defendant's front door and had it spend several minutes smelling for drugs before entering the home. Justice Elena Kagan noted during oral arguments that such conduct could lead to door-to-door searches of people's homes without prior probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
While police in Pennsylvania and most other states have used drug-sniffing dogs for some time, it is questionable how good of a job they do. One study suggested that police dogs falsely identify drugs between 44 percent to 93 percent of the time.
Source: USA TODAY, "Supreme Court rules in favor of drug-sniffing dog," Richard Wolf, Feb. 19, 2013
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