Law Enforcement Bulletin

Sign up for newsletters and other news
Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > April 2012 > Trending Topic in the Courts: Do dog sniffs constitute a search?

Law Enforcement Bulletin RSS feeds

Trending Topic in the Courts: Do dog sniffs constitute a search?

The U.S. Supreme Court is taking another look at law enforcement’s use of dog sniffs later this year. 
In Florida v. Harris, the court will decide whether an alert by a trained and certified drug dog is enough to find probable cause to search a vehicle. A Florida police officer pulled over a truck for having expired license tags. The officer noticed the driver was nervous and saw an open beer can in one of the truck’s cup holders. The driver refused to consent to a search of the truck, so the officer had his drug detection dog walk around the outside of the vehicle. The dog alerted to the driver’s side door. The officer then searched the vehicle and discovered pseudoephedrine pills, matches, and muriatic acid, all used to make methamphetamine.   
The Florida Supreme Court previously held in Harris that a drug dog’s false positive detections should be considered when determining if probable cause exists. The state court held that drug dog alerts alone are not enough to give officers probable cause to search without a warrant. Probable cause should be based on the totality of the circumstances and take into consideration the dog’s training, the dog handler’s training, and the dog’s accuracy. 
The U.S. Supreme Court also will review Florida v. Jardines to decide whether a trained and certified drug dog sniff at the front door of a suspected drug house is a Fourth Amendment search that requires probable cause. In this case, police received an anonymous tip that Jardines was growing marijuana in his home. Officers surveyed Jardines’ house for 15 minutes and then walked their drug dog to the front door of the home. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs. With the tip and dog sniff, officers were able to get a search warrant. When police executed the warrant, they discovered marijuana plants and growing equipment inside the home. 
The Florida Supreme Court held that the dog sniff was a substantial intrusion into Jardines’ privacy rights in his home, so police needed to establish probable cause beforeconducting the dog sniff of the private residence. The court found that the Florida officers violated the Fourth Amendment for conducting a dog sniff “search” without first establishing probable cause.  
Before this set of Florida cases, which the court will hear this fall, the U.S. Supreme Court held in United States v. Place (1983) that drug detection dog sniffs do not invade a person’s privacy rights because they only alert for criminal activity, such as possessing illegal drugs. The court found dog sniffs to be unique, so it did not label the sniffs as a “search.” 
The court later held in Illinois v. Caballes (2005) that using a drug detection dog sniff during a traffic stop does not change the encounter of the stop as long as it is not prolonged beyond what’s reasonably necessary to carry out the original purpose of the stop. The court also found that law enforcement does not even need reasonable suspicion to conduct a dog sniff of a vehicle.
Morgan A. Linn
Assistant Attorney General and Legal Analyst