Drug Dogs At Traffic Stops? SCOTUS Says Go For It!

The Supreme Court opened up an enormous exception to the Fourth Amendment in a case that widely embraced the use of drug-sniffing dogs at routine traffic stops.

The case came out of Florida where Clayton Harris, a truck driver, was pulled over on a routine traffic stop. The officer in charge of the stop, William Wheetley, later testified that Harris seemed nervous at the stop, and based on that nervousness he asked for permission to search the truck. Harris refused the search, but instead of letting him go Wheetley went and grabbed is K-9 partner Aldo and walked him around the car. Aldo reportedly alerted to the presence of drugs and the officers searched the truck. During the search they didn’t find any of the drugs Aldo was trained to detect but the officers did find various ingredients for making meth. Two months later, Wheetley again stopped Harris, only this time it was for a broken brake light. Once again Wheetley walked Aldo around the car and once again the dog signaled there were drugs in the car. Once again a search of the vehicle failed to turn up illegal narcotics.

Harris challenged both the searches, arguing they were unconstitutional because the officers lacked probable cause in each case. The Florida Supreme Court agreed and ruled that both searches were illegal. In order to use a dog’s alert to justify a search, the state court said, police must demonstrate more than that the dog was trained and certified to conduct such a search. Police must also present field performance records to show that the dog is a reliable detector of the presence of drugs. Aldo’s performance suggested an unreliability, and police power should have a stronger check on it than faith in animal training, the Florida court reasoned.

But the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Elena Kagan said that requiring an inflexible performance checklist as the ultimate determination of canine reliability defies common sense, even if individual rights are at stake. Instead, the justices said, courts should generally consider a dog sniff as reliable if the dog has completed and passed a certified training program that includes controlled performance tests.

This may sound like a lot of parsing out of the technicalities of police work, and in some ways it is. But the impact this decision will have on an expanding surveillance state is much more than just a technicality. To justify a search in the context of a routine traffic stop, police need probable cause to believe that the person stopped is committing a crime that justifies the search. Police dogs hitting on suspects like Harris, regardless if those hits are correct, will now become a proxy for probable cause which is an open invitation for police to search. As we’ve seen in New York and elsewhere, an open invitation to lawmakers to search without fail falls heaviest on the poor and communities of color. There’s no reason to think that will change.

What’s most upsetting about the decision is its unanimity at the Court. The idea of probable cause has been falling out fashion at the high court for years, if not decades, since the Warren Court but this latest decision suggests that modern policing techniques can easily lull the justices into accepting a “no harm no foul” argument when it comes to these kinds of incidental searches. I don’t expect Justice Scalia to come to the defense of everyday citizens, but when even the liberal wing of the Court not just signs on, but authors the opinion in a case that dramatically expands the power of local law enforcement to harass citizens, then it is a sad day for the Constitution and an even sadder day for the people.


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Photo from NORCAL_POLICE/FIRE/EMS via flickr.


Lori Ann Hone
Lori Hone5 years ago

Very sad :-(

bruce t.
bruce t5 years ago

(cont.) why the hell were curtains ever invented for our window? And why the hell were locks on bathroom doors ever invented. You tell me. Help me out with that one. These illegal searches really have little or nothing to do with drugs. They're more about publicly humiliating people who've done little or nothing wrong.

Stanley R.
Stanley R5 years ago

It seems like even our Supreme Court Justices' are up for sale and have "sold out" There is literally today no more personal liberty in America. Our civil rights have been eroded by the power of the mighty Corporate lobbyists dollar. We need not just reform we need a revolution, world wide to fix a "flawed system" The people have suffered enough, politics and Capitalism have brought back slavery of the masses in a disguised form, but slavery none the less.

bruce t.
bruce t5 years ago

Nothing to hide? Really? is that right? So, If you're innocent, what's there to worry about? Actually, everything. If the wrong folks particularly in positions of authority have too much info on you they could twist it around in such a way as a means to destroy you (and you spinmaster folks in law enforcement know it). Not only may an intrusive boss fish for info on your personal activities OUTSIDE the workplace, a very jealous co-worker, or a very very jealous ex-lover, or better yet, corrupt cops & VERY CORRUPT prosecutors could be easily motivated to take innocent info about you, twist it in such a way to make you appear to SOMEONE WHO YOU ARE NOT just to advance their political careers. That's right, they find NO DRUGS NOR WEAPONS (or anything illegal for that matter) on you they'll be more than happy to deliberately misconstrue any banal thing you say or do, no matter how perfectly legal, no matter how trivial, and turn it into some innuendo or something else it isn't. Those folks in law enforcement have tried linking just about everything but peanut butter & toilet paper to their phoney war on drugs (one of these days I'm sure they'll try to add those too). By the way--you have nothing to hide? "Then show me your wallet-no wait--Give me your damn wallet!" "I want your social security number!" "I want your bank account number". "Tell me about your sex life-no wait--I DEMAND TO WATCH YOU HAVE SEX WITH YOUR PARTNER DAMN IT!" So, nothing to hide, eh? So why the hell

bruce t.
bruce t5 years ago

Nothing to hide? Really? Is that right?

Mark B.
Mark Bales5 years ago

We do not live in the land of the free, we live (in the US) in an oligarchal, corporatist, police state.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are CREATED equal, and are endowed by their CREATOR with certain unalienable rights..." Still think that the writers of the DOI were deists? A clockwork God does not give rights, onlly one with a personal involvement in His creation.

It is a shame that the sheeple have become accustomed to being bulldoged by the police. We need to remember that our Founding Fathers believed that we received our rights from our Creator, and that no government or law can do away with our rights. If one believes that the right to 'keep and bear arms' can be infringed upon in the name of safety, then it is a slippery slope to infringing upon any or all of the rest of our rights.

Katie K.
Katie K5 years ago

If there is monies to be made they go for it full on. It's like the mandatory seatbelt law. I understand that they do save lives but isn't it up to an individual if they wish to implement this restraint into their daily lives. I really don't believe the government really gives a hoot about my personal safety but it's something they can generate cash flow for not living by their rules. My state has no helmet on bikes so if I were to sit on the roof of my car and drive it that would be ok. There is no capital gained on crimes like abuse, rape etc. so now they want to sniff out your person. Not cool.

Betsy M.
Betsy M5 years ago

The prison industry has its eye on tax dollars. Blinded to anything else.

Terry Mckinney
Terry Mckinney5 years ago

Studies have shown that so called drug sniffing dogs will "hit"on 50% of their searches.They get as many false positives as flipping a coin would.The whole drug testing law enforcement triangle is rife with abuses and mistakes but who's counting?Not the police or evidently the supreme court.

Robby C.
Past Member 5 years ago

Ken H- you're 100% right- NEVER fall for the "if you're not guilty, then what do you have to hide?" BS. It's just one more way to take more steps to control you. We are innocent until proven guilty. You don't have to prove your innocence whenever asked by a cop. HE has to have a good reason to search you OR have a dog sniff you etc. Someone could have been in your car who had marijuana on them & that smell WILL stay in your car (enough for a good dog's nose to smell anyway). Now you're in trouble. BS!

And Dominic- just b/c scotus allows corrupt BS to go over does NOT make it law. We are a free country & some of us will fight. It doesn't take much. Just a small percentage goes a long way & they WILL back down. But if our country is full of a bunch of sheep who are so sissy, they'd rather trade liberty for a false sense of security, then we are doomed.