November 15, 2012 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Many police departments in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States rely on specially trained dogs to help officers search for illegal drugs. In many cases, drug-sniffing dogs are used before police have obtained a warrant.
This practice has long drawn criticism from criminal defense attorneys and civil rights advocates, who worry that using a drug-sniffing dog without a warrant violates Americans' constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment generally requires that police obtain a warrant before they conduct a search of a person and his or her home and belongings. However, not every police inquiry is a "search" in the eyes of the law. Drug dog advocates argue that using a dog does not rise to the level of a constitutionally-protected search, since the dogs are simply using their senses to alert an officer to the presence of something illegal.
The issue is expected to be resolved next year, now that the Supreme Court of the United States has heard oral arguments in two cases questioning the constitutionality of warrantless searches by drug-sniffing dogs. One involves a search near a home, while the other involves the search of a car.
Drug Searches Near Homes
In the first case, Florida v. Jarndines, police received a tip that a man was growing marijuana in his home. Based on nothing but that tip, police brought a drug-detecting dog to the home and had it sniff around the premises. Eventually, the drug alerted officers to the smell of marijuana emanating from the front door. Based on the dog's reaction, police obtained a search warrant for the house. Upon executing the warrant, they discovered a marijuana growing operation.
The man challenged the evidence against him, claiming that it was obtained in violation of his constitutional rights. He believed that police should have gotten a warrant before bringing a dog to his property.
At oral argument, the Supreme Court justices questioned where this type of search could lead. Could officers simply lead dogs around high-crime neighborhoods? Could they go into apartment buildings and have dogs sniff every resident's front door? The justices suggested that the reason for the visit and the length of time a dog spends on a person's property could make a difference in determining whether a "search" took place.
Drug Searches of Vehicles
The second case, Florida v. Harris, involves a search of a person's car. Generally, people are presumed to have lower expectations of privacy with regard to their vehicles as compared to their homes.
In that case, a man was pulled over for driving with an expired license plate. When the officer approached the vehicle, he noticed that the man appeared to be under the influence of drugs. The officer asked to search the truck, but the man refused. Then, the officer brought in a drug-sniffing dog, who alerted to the smell of methamphetamine on the door handle. The officer then used the dog's reaction as a justification to search the inside of the vehicle.
The man challenged the search, claiming that a smell on a door handle shouldn't necessarily lead to an inference that there are drugs inside the vehicle. He also claimed that there wasn't sufficient evidence to prove that the dog was actually a reliable detector of illegal drugs.
Challenging drug evidence
At this point, it is unclear how the Supreme Court will rule in these cases. However, the cases do highlight a broader issue: after a drug arrest, it is important to review the circumstances of the investigation and arrest to determine whether any constitutional rights were violated. Evidence obtained in violation of the constitution cannot be used in court. When the violations are severe, the charges might even be dismissed.
If you have been arrested for a drug crime in Pennsylvania, talk to a Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney who can help make sure your rights are protected.