Wishing Man’s Best Friend A Good Day In Court

Absent delays caused by Hurricane Sandy, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in two Florida appeal decisions on October 31 that could impact the use of canines in searches and individuals’ rights to privacy.  Florida’s Supreme Court ruled that the detection of drugs by trained police dogs had violated the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Exactly How Accurate is YOUR Dog?

In one of the cases, Florida v. Harris, the court is asked to decide whether a dog’s alert establishes sufficient probable cause to search a vehicle. The case asks the court to determine how good the dog’s accuracy record must be?  To read the Brief supporting the petitioner Click here.

The second case, Florida v. Jardines, asks whether officers may take a dog to the front porch of a home to sniff for possible marijuana inside. To read the Brief supporting the petitioner Click here.

While these arguments are distinctly different, rulings on either could extend, or limit, previous decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that grant police autonomous use of the dogs, including for inspections at airport terminals, vehicles stopped at checkpoints and perhaps more.  But, multiple earlier decisions by the court have upheld the beneficial use of canines.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned (6-2) an Illinois Supreme Court ruling (Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005)) that an Illinois State Trooper’s use of a canine during a routine traffic stop that found 282 pounds of marijuana in the suspect’s vehicle were unlawful.  The prevailing opinion wrote by Justice John Paul Stevens said that the officers had not “unnecessarily prolonged the stop and that the dog alert was sufficiently reliable to provide probable cause to conduct the search.”

A Sniff is Not a Search

Justice Stevens went on to explain that the court agreed to review the case only on the narrow question of “whether the Fourth Amendment requires reasonable, articulable suspicion to justify using a drug-detection dog to sniff a vehicle during a legitimate traffic stop.”  He cited a 1983 decision in United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696 (1983) – a case that rendered a decision that a dog’s sniff is not a search.

Two distinguishing points were important to the court’s earlier decisions:

1.            The reason for stopping the suspect was based on probable cause and legal; and

2.            The dog only sniffed the exterior of the vehicle while the vehicle was stopped under probable cause.  The dog did not enter the vehicle and thus no intrusion of privacy occurred.  The dog only detected illegal drugs.

Protecting Our Food Supply

While the U.S. Supreme Court grapples with the decision on canine use in law enforcement, it should be duly noted that the use of canines is critically important to detecting pests harmful to human health, the environment and our nation’s food supply.

For instance, trained dogs can find bed bugs (and their eggs), now resurging throughout the U.S. at alarming rates, in places humans cannot.  According to the Center for Disease Control, although bed bugs are not known to transmit disease, they are a pest of significant public health importance. Bed bugs fit into a category of blood-sucking ectoparasites (external parasites) similar to head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis). Their bites can cause mild to severe allergic reactions.  The use of canines helps to detect bed bugs behind baseboards, inside mattresses, and anywhere else that these pests might hide.

If It’s Good Enough for APHIS…

For years canines have also demonstrated their proficiency at detecting harmful invasive species in high-risk pathways including multiple entry points into the U.S. like ports, airports and mail and parcel carriers.  Such pests are harmful to the environment and our nation’s food supply.  If a pest goes undetected and is released into the U.S. environment it can cost federal, state and local governments millions of dollars in control and eradication efforts.

As part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), canines are trained to inspect luggage at U.S. airports searching for agricultural products. According to APHIS, the canine program averages around 75,000 seizures of prohibited agricultural products each year.  APHIS works in conjunction with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the United States Public Health Service.

Given the multiple benefits that man’s best friend continually conveys upon our society by way of protecting us from those individuals and invasive species who would do us harm, let’s wish them a good day in court.

Tim Cansler