The Supreme Court issued a ruling yesterday that is disappointing for anyone concerned with civil rights. In Florida v. Harris, the Court unanimously overruled the Florida Supreme Court and held that a “dog sniff” is enough to establish probable cause for a police officer to search your vehicle.
Last summer, I wrote about a case that has yet to be decided, Florida v. Jardines, that also challenges the validity of drug-sniffing dogs. The problem with drug-sniffing dogs is that they can be influenced by their human handlers, and the prejudices and preconceptions of dog handlers should not be enough to establish probable cause. The latter case could still be decided differently since the Court has traditionally been more protective of rights when a house is involved, but its decision in Harris indicates a reluctance to second guess the use of drug-sniffing dogs, despite a lack of science establishing their reliability.
In this case, the dog was wrong that the defendant, Clayton Harris, had any of the narcotics that it was trained to uncover. Mr. Harris was pulled over twice, two months apart, and the same dog and handler walked around his car. Both times the dog alerted. The first time, Mr. Harris had ingredients and equipment for making methamphetamine, but the dog was not trained to find those ingredients. The second time, he had nothing illegal at all.
From a civil rights perspective, the problem is that most police departments do not keep records of stops involving drug-sniffing dogs. For people who are truly innocent, this means their lives can be disrupted while an officer tears apart their car looking for the contraband that will never be found. The innocent person may or may not receive an apology from the officer, but that will be cold comfort for anyone who missed a crucial appointment or had embarrassing (but not illegal) personal belongings uncovered while the officer searched. For the guilty, it shifts the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense. A defendant must show that the dog and the handler are unreliable, and if police departments do not keep records or a dog’s mistakes, this will be nearly impossible.