Anyone who has ever watched an episode of Cops has probably seen a police dog at work. A suspected criminal is hiding somewhere in a neighborhood in an attempt to evade arrest, so a police dog is brought to the scene and released. An officer with a flashlight begins chasing the dog as the cameraman struggles to keep up and, within a few minutes, the suspect is lying on the ground with a four-legged assailant barking and menacingly baring its teeth toward him.
Although police dogs are used in pursuit of suspects, they are also employed in a more subtle manner: detecting drugs by scent. Drug-sniffing dogs are used in many contexts, from public places like airports to vehicles and even at private residences. In most scenarios, all a police officer needs in order to perform a legal search of private belongings or property is an alert from a trained drug dog.
In Arizona, police officers often use narcotics dogs to supplement their work – dogs can be seen sweeping baggage at Sky Harbor, in parking garages in Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale, and even at private residences and neighborhoods in Mesa, Chandler, and elsewhere. Phoenix-area attorneys present and refute evidence obtained after a narcotics dog’s alert in a wide variety of different types of cases.
Unfortunately, not all drug sniffers are equal, so the reliability of any particular dog may be unknown at the time of the search. Dogs are re-trained and re-certified on a semi-regular basis, but there is some debate about whether the dogs are always alerting to drugs or are just responding to subtle cues from their handlers.
Once the dog alerts to a car door handle or a piece of luggage, officers may begin to search and discover circumstantial, non-drug evidence – cash, a firearm, and so on – which may be admissible in court regardless of whether the dog could have detected it.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide two cases challenging the legality of the use of drug-sniffing dogs in the current term. One case, Florida v. Harris, questions whether a narcotics dog’s alert to a vehicle is sufficient to establish probable cause for a search under the Fourth Amendment. The second case, Florida v. Jardines, centers around whether police can guide a drug-sniffing dog to the front door of a private residence in an attempt to establish probable cause for an interior search.
Precedent suggests that the Supreme Court will be more willing to protect the privacy of individuals in their homes than in their vehicles, but there is always an element of unpredictability in search and seizure cases.
No matter the results in Florida v. Harris and Florida v. Jardines, police will continue to employ drug-sniffing dogs as one of many tools used to circumvent the need for a search warrant. Any criminal conviction, whether drug-related or otherwise, can have a lasting negative impact on your life.