WASHINGTON, DC — Weighing in on a second case before the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the practice unconstitutional in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. In an amicus curiae brief filed in Florida v. Harris, Institute attorneys argue that utilizing drug-sniffing dogs to search a suspect’s car during a routine traffic stop without first vetting the reliability of the dog’s detection skills is unconstitutional. Citing studies raising serious doubts about the reliability and training of drug detection dogs, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm a decision by the Florida Supreme Court requiring that the state prove the reliability of a dog alert before evidence of contraband found as a result of a dog’s alert is admitted against a defendant in a criminal case. In their brief, Institute attorneys cite published scientific studies showing that drug dog alerts are wrong as much as 56% of the time, and are heavily influenced by the biases of the dog’s handler. Earlier this year, Institute attorneys filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Florida v. Jardines, which challenges the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches of private homes.
“If police are going to use dogs to search citizens’ possessions and property, they should be required to prove that the dog’s abilities are trustworthy,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Police detection equipment must be properly vetted, unless we wish to condone dubious police searches and violations of property rights all across America.”
In June 2006, a Florida county sheriff stopped a vehicle driven by Clayton Harris for an expired license tag. When Harris refused the sheriff’s request for consent to search the vehicle, a drug-detection dog was deployed and conducted a “free air sniff” of the exterior of the vehicle. When the dog alerted to the door handle on the driver’s side, the officer conducted a warrantless search of the interior of the vehicle and found materials used for the manufacture of methamphetamine. Harris was arrested and charged. However, before trial, Harris’ attorneys moved to suppress the evidence found as a result of the search of his vehicle, asserting that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. At the suppression hearing, the state introduced evidence that the dog had gone through training and was certified for drug detection, but presented no specific evidence documenting the dog’s overall performance nor records of the dog’s false alerts. In fact, Harris presented evidence that the dog had alerted to the same vehicle two months before his arrest, but a search of the vehicle revealed no illegal drugs. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, but the Florida Supreme Court granted the motion on appeal, ruling that evidence that the dog has been trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish the dog’s reliability for purposes of determining probable cause. The court held that the state has the burden of showing the officer had a reasonable basis for believing the dog was reliable by presenting evidence on matters such as training field performance records. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently granted the state’s request to review the decision. In its amicus brief, The Rutherford Institute documents empirical research showing dog alerts are not inherently reliable. One recent study at the University of California—Davis, showed that in a test where handlers were told drugs might be found at the test site, but no drugs were present, dogs gave false positive alerts an astonishing 85% of the time.