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Drug detection by dogs: issue now before U.S. Supreme Court

How far can police go in using dogs to investigate drug crime? The U.S. Supreme Court will be addressing the question this term through two cases involving dogs used by law enforcement officers to sniff out suspicious activity despite the absence of a warrant.

Both cases are from Florida. But the Supreme Court's decision will have important implications for how police pursue drug charges in Connecticut and elsewhere across the country.

In the first case, police allowed a dog to sniff around a house without a warrant. The dog indicated through a signal that it had smelled contraband. Police then obtained a warrant, and searched the house, where they found marijuana growing.

The second case also involved a drug-detection dog. Instead of the dog being directed at a house, however, the case concerned a patrol officer stopping a truck for a traffic violation (expired license plate).

The officer noticed the driver was agitated in some way and unable to remain still. The driver then refused the officer's request to search the truck. Despite this refusal, the officer deployed a search dog anyway.

Again, as in the first case, the dog indicated an illicit scent. The police officer proceeded to search the truck and found materials for the manufacture of methamphetamine.

It is unclear how the Supreme Court will rule in the two cases. But it is fair to say that, in recent years, the Court has made protection of the privacy of the home central to its Fourth Amendment analysis.

In 2001, the Court held that police are not allowed to examine the interior of a home through a heat-sensing device unless they have a warrant.

In the past, the Court has also said that police do not have carte blanche to dispense with the warrant requirement by using dogs. It isn't enough to show that a dog was properly trained to sniff out drugs or even that it was certified to do so. There is still a need for police to show that a particular dog and its handler have a performance record that indicates sufficient reliability.

Source: "Sniffing Dogs and the Fourth Amendment," New York Times, 10-31-12

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