Sniff search

If drug-sniffing dogs can provide probable cause for police to search private vehicles, they should be properly trained and their skills documented.

A Times Editorial
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 19, 2003

In an important ruling earlier this month, Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeals said that police dogs used to sniff out illicit narcotics must be properly trained and evaluated, with thorough records kept, before their responses may be deemed reliable. According to the court, the Sheriff's Office in Hillsborough County was not doing enough to ensure that its drug-detecting dogs were conditioned to "alert" to contraband alone, as opposed to some other trigger. The ruling laid down a set of guidelines the department will have to follow if it wants to use evidence obtained through the use of the dogs.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel would seem to be just a matter of common sense, but it is sure to be appealed. The Sheriff's Office, like nearly all other law enforcement agencies, uses drug-detecting dogs as a way to circumvent the Constitution's warrant requirement, and it apparently doesn't want this convenient tool scrutinized too closely. But this is precisely the role the courts should play. Rather than being appealed, the court's ruling should be a model for the rest of the state.

In the field, drug-sniffing dogs are often used when a driver, pulled over for a traffic infraction, refuses to give police consent for his vehicle to be searched. The deputy or officer handling the dog will direct it around the perimeter of the car. If the dog alerts to the presence of narcotics, police are deemed to have probable cause and may conduct a legal search of the car's interior.

Why should a driver pulled over for speeding be subject to this intrusive process? If police have no cause to believe the driver is a drug runner, why should dogs be used at all? In truth, they shouldn't be, but the U.S. Supreme Court has said the use of drug-sniffing dogs doesn't constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment, and that means police may deploy them with relative impunity.

There is still a role for the courts, however, in ensuring that dogs are the precision tools for finding drugs that law enforcement claims.

In the current case, a Hillsborough County Sheriff's drug-detecting dog, Razor, was used in May 1999 to smell a car driven by Gary Alan Matheson. He had been stopped for a traffic infraction. After the dog alerted to the presence of drugs, the car was searched and illegal drugs were found. The trial court refused to suppress the evidence, and Matheson, who then pleaded no contest, was given probation.

In reversing the conviction, the state appeals court found that Razor's alert was not reliable, due to the poor training and record-keeping done by the Sheriff's Office. Among many deficiencies, Razor's success and failure rate was not documented, the dog had not been subject to controlled negative testing (where he searches and there are no drugs present), and he had not been given training to ignore residual smells of drugs. While the Customs Service puts its drug-detecting dogs through a 12-week course, Razor's training lasted only five weeks. The court found that this lack of rigor meant his alert on Matheson's car was not reliable and could not justify a search.

Drug-sniffing dogs give police the power to invade our private vehicles - bypassing the need to persuade a judge to issue a warrant. This exception to the Constitution is based entirely on the dependability of the dog's skills. All the court did was to require those skills to be real and documented. That should not be too much to ask.