How Accurate Are Drug Sniffing Dogs & Can The Evidence Be Used in Court?

By: James Davis

For many years police officers have used the trained dogs’ sense of smell to detect various narcotics hidden in bags, clothes, or vehicles. But how accurate are those dogs, and does their use violate constitutional protections afforded to all community members? These questions have been gaining national attention, and changes in the law may have serious implications for all Florida residents who have been charged with drug crimes where drug-sniffing dogs were used.

Questionable Accuracy

For one thing, drug sniffing dogs are actually wrong more often than they are right. A 2011 investigation from the Chicago Tribune, for example, found that officers conducting sniff searches on cars found drugs or paraphernalia in the vehicles only 44% of the time that the dogs alerted them to their presence. An “alert” by a dog may be sufficient probable cause allowing the officer to conduct more invasive searches.  But if those alerts are inaccurate, should it actually be sufficient cause to search more?

One problem is that the police officers handling the animals may provide cues that lead the dog to alert. For example, walking too slowly around a vehicle or around the same vehicle too many times can trigger false alerts. Officers may suspect certain vehicles or individuals are more likely to possess drugs–a form of profiling–and act differently to trigger the dog’s response. This can occur intentionally or inadvertently, but considering the consequences for those residents whose rights are on the line, the poor accuracy level is troubling.

Florida’s Drug Sniffing Cases Reach Supreme Court

These issues have been discussed in high profile Florida cases. The Florida Supreme Court issued rulings in two cases recently that clarify how “alerts” may be used in our state as sufficient probable cause to conduct a search–and therefore have the fruits of that search be used as evidence in a subsequent criminal case.

One new ruling set up standards that must be followed for the alerts to be used to conduct further searches. When seeking to justify use of the alert, the State must show that the dogs were properly trained and certified. But just showing any training is insufficient; the State must provide specific details about the training. The past false alerts of the specific animal must also be shown, with information provided on the percentage of accuracy. It is not an excuse for the State to claim that they did not keep records of the animal’s field performance. On top of that, the State must present information on the experience and training of the dog handler.

In a separate case, the Florida Supreme Court also found that using a dog to sniff around a home without a warrant violated one’s 4th Amendment rights. Essentially, the intrusion onto the property for the purpose of sniffing is not allowed without consent or a warrant. Just having a home does not grant “implied consent” to outside searches from drug sniffing dogs.

Both of these Florida cases were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. That Court heard arguments on the cases last year, and a ruling is expected soon. The decisions may influence how these issues apply in state cases in the future. It is critical to contact an attorney whenever you have been charged with a crime where drug sniffing dogs were involved to understand how the law applies in your case.

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