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Drug-sniffing dogs and the Fourth Amendment

November 7, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Now that the election is over, my attention is turned back to the U.S. Supreme Court and a couple of civil liberties cases that bear some watching. Last week the Court heard a couple of Florida search and seizure cases involving drug dogs.

According to the Huffington Post, the first case, Florida v. Jardines, started when a drug dog sniffed drugs outside an apartment door. The question before the Court is whether that qualifies as a search requiring probable cause. If cops don't need to get a warrant before they bring in the drug dogs, the Huffington Post is afraid that could lead to massive fishing expeditions or "sniff sweeps" at apartment complexes, public housing and other areas with a lot of people. Since there are bound to be traces of drugs in some of the residences in any given area, that might lead to a number of intrusive searches.

In the other case, Florida v. Harris, the Court is taking a look at a Florida State Supreme Court case that sets some rules about which dog can be used in a search. It would presumably require that a particular drug dog is good at his or her job and doesn't give a lot of false alarms. Journalist Radley Badko points out that cops might have some reasons for using dogs that give a lot of false alerts since that will make it easier for the cops to search the place they want to search. If the Supreme Court rules for the state, cops and prosecutors wouldn't have to keep track of how accurate the dog has been at sniffing out drugs at earlier locations and it will be easier for police to conduct search.

For me, both cases are no brainers: cops should have some reason to suspect that a particular location has drugs before they bring in the drug dog and any drug dog they bring in should not have a history of making false alarms or of only following his handler's lead. Civil liberties are likely to suffer otherwise.

I would like to see the Supreme Court issue guidelines on how the Fourth Amendment applies in other areas in the 21st century, in cases involving the Internet, computers, and drone plane surveillance. Without those guidelines, the Fourth Amendment is under siege.

It's too easy for the government to obtain personal information on a cell phone or a laptop during a search. It's also likely that unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, will be put to greater use by many law enforcement agencies to conduct aerial searches. There don't seem to be many guidelines in place regarding what happens to the information obtained during that surveillance and how it might be used against people in court.

A drone plane on loan from Grand Forks Air Force Base was used to end a standoff at a farm near Grand Forks several months ago. The police used information attained from the drone to storm the farm with a SWAT team and arrest the owners. A judge denied the defense lawyer's motion to dismiss charges, ruling that use of the drone was a non-issue since it wasn't being used for investigative purposes. In that case, use of the drone plane permitted the police to end the standoff without injury to them or to their suspects, but it's easy to see how tempting it would be for law enforcement to use those planes under other circumstances. That cannot be allowed if we are to retain our civil liberties and right to privacy.

I hope the Supreme Court is up to the task of protecting our civil liberties.


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