From time to time throughout history, individuals have been subjected to charges (and eventual punishment) by accusers whose testimony was treated as infallible and inerrant. Once again, we find ourselves repeating history, only this time, it’s the police whose testimony is too often considered beyond reproach and whose accusations have the power to render one’s life over.
In the police state being erected around us, the police can probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts. Making matters worse, however, police dogs—cute, furry, tail-wagging mascots with a badge—have now been elevated to the ranks of inerrant, infallible sanctimonious accusers with the power of the state behind them. This is largely due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Florida v. Harris, in which a unanimous Court declared roadside stops to be Constitution-free zones where police may search our vehicles based upon a hunch and the presence of a frisky canine.
This is what one would call a slow death by a thousand cuts, only it’s the Fourth Amendment being inexorably bled to death. This latest wound, in which a unanimous Supreme Court determined that police officers may use drug-sniffing dogs to conduct warrantless searches of cars during routine traffic stops, comes on the heels of recent decisions by the Court that give police the green light to taser defenseless motorists, strip search non-violent suspects arrested for minor incidents, and break down people’s front doors without evidence that they have done anything wrong.
In Florida v. Harris, for example, the Court was presented with the case of Clayton Harris who, in 2006, was pulled over by Officer William Wheetley for having an expired license tag. During the stop, Wheetley decided that Harris was acting suspicious and requested to search his vehicle. Harris refused, so Wheetley brought out his drug-sniffing dog, Aldo, to walk around Harris’ car. Aldo allegedly alerted to the door handle of Harris’ car, leading Wheetley to search the vehicle.
Although the search of Harris’ car did not turn up any of the drugs which Aldo was actually trained to detect, such as marijuana, Wheetley found pseudophedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicine, and other materials allegedly used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Harris was arrested and released on bail, during which time he was again stopped by Officer Wheetley and again subjected to a warrantless search of his vehicle based upon Aldo’s alert, but this time Wheetley found nothing.
Harris challenged the search, arguing that the police had not provided sufficient evidence that Aldo was a reliable drug-sniffing dog, thus his supposed alert on Harris’ door did not give the officer probable cause to search the vehicle. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, ruling that police should be able to prove that the dog actually has a track record of finding drugs while in the field before it is used as an excuse for a warrantless search.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court did not see it that way. In reversing the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with police by claiming that all that the police need to do to prove probable cause for a search is simply assert that a drug detection dog has received proper training. As such, the Court has now given the police free reign to use dogs as “search warrants on leashes,” justifying any and all police searches of vehicles stopped on the roadside. The ruling turns man’s best friend into an extension of the police state.
The Supreme Court’s decision is particularly alarming when one considers that drug-sniffing dogs, even expertly trained dogs with reliable handlers, are rarely accurate. One study demonstrated that dogs were incorrect in drug identification up to 60% of the time. A 2011 study published in Animal Cognition involved a series of tests, some designed to fool the dog and some designed to fool the handler. The dogs in these tests falsely alerted 123 out of a total of 144 times. When a test was designed to fool the handler rather than the dog, the dog was twice as likely to falsely alert.
Despite being presented with numerous reports documenting flaws in the use of drug-detection dogs, the U.S. Supreme Court opted to ignore plentiful evidence that drug dog alerts are specious at best. Moreover, the justices also chose to interpret Aldo’s failure to detect any of the drugs he was trained to find during the two sniff searches around Harris’ car as proof of Aldo’s superior sniffing skills rather than glaring proof that drug-sniffing dogs do make mistakes. Incredibly, the Court suggested that the dog alert was due to Aldo having smelled an odor that was transferred to the car door after the defendant used methamphetamine—a supposition that is nearly impossible to prove.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision is merely the latest in a long line of abuses justified by an institution concerned more with establishing order and protecting government agents than with upholding the rights enshrined in the Constitution. For example, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Kentucky v. King that police may smash down doors of homes or apartments without a warrant when in search of illegal drugs which they suspect might be destroyed.
With case after case stacking up in which the courts empower the police to run roughshod over citizens’ rights, the Constitution be damned, the outlook is decidedly grim. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court still has to rule on another drugsniffing, dog-related case, Florida v. Jardines, which challenges warrantless searches of individuals’ homes based on questionable dog alerts. For those hoping that our rights will be restored or at least protected, you could have a long wait. Indeed, the next decision from the Supreme Court might just take the Fourth Amendment down for the count.