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How accurate are dogs at detecting illegal drugs?

Whether at the airport, a mall or sometimes even around campus, law enforcement and security officers are often accompanied by working dogs. The use of dogs in crime investigation has evolved from tracking suspects involved in crimes to sniffing out explosives and drugs.

In a recent traffic stop on Interstate 25 near Denver, police called in a drug-sniffing dog after the occupants of the vehicle acted suspiciously. The vehicle was initially stopped because its license plate was not visible. When officers asked the driver and passenger where they were coming from, each gave different answers. The driver also appeared nervous.

When police asked to search the vehicle, the driver gave permission to search the vehicle. A drug-sniffing dog alerted to the presence of illegal drugs. Officers found narcotics in a rear-quarter panel of the vehicle. Officers arrested both men on suspicion of cocaine possession.

The above situation is becoming more common as trained canines play an increasingly important role at many police departments across the country. The general rule is that police do not need to get a warrant to bring in a drug-sniffing dog when conducting a motor vehicle search.

Following a 2012 Colorado Supreme Court case, officers in Colorado do not even need a reasonable suspicion that a vehicle contains drugs before requesting a narcotic detection dog to assist at a traffic stop. The court found that walking a drug-sniffing dog around the perimeter of a vehicle did not constitute a “search” within the meaning of the state constitutional guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure.

With the use of drug detection canines increasing, there are questions regarding their reliability. The U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on this question in its current term.

A possible change in the treatment of dog sniffs

At the end of October, the Court heard oral arguments on two cases involving dog sniffs.

In the first case, the factual situation was very similar to the recent traffic stop in Denver. A Florida sheriff’s deputy stopped a vehicle for an expired license plate. The driver acted nervous, was shaking and breathing fast. A drug-sniffing dog alerted at a door handle. A search of the vehicle turned up ingredients for making methamphetamine.

The second case was a bit different. Florida officers following up on a Crime Stoppers tip brought a drug-sniffing dog onto the patio of the suspect residence. The dog alerted to the presence of narcotics and the officers used this to obtain a search warrant. The police found marijuana growing inside the home.

Each case makes the argument that the dog sniff was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which grants the “right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

On the issue of reliability, the Justices raised the finding of studies that have questioned the accuracy of trained dogs. One Illinois study found that dogs came up with false positives 12 to 60 percent of the time. Another factor affecting accuracy may be that handlers can unconsciously cue dogs. Bringing a dog up to a front door also caused the justices some concern, because of privacy interests associated with the home. The court should issue opinions in each case later this term.

If you have been changed with a possession of a controlled substance, contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer. Depending on the facts of your individual case, defenses may exist. A review by an attorney is one way to make sure that your rights are protected.