Of drug sniffing dogs and probable cause

As much as I try to keep up with events at the Supreme Court, there always seem to be some that slip past me. Such was the case with this week’s ruling regarding drug sniffing dogs and random traffic stops.

The high court ruled unanimously that a Florida police officer’s use of a drug-sniffing dog to search a truck during a routine traffic stop was appropriate, even though the drugs found were not what the pooch was trained to detect.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the unanimous opinion for the court – and for Aldo, a retired drug-detection dog. “The record in this case amply supported the trial court’s determination that Aldo’s alert gave (Canine Officer William) Wheetley probable cause to search the truck,” she said.

This brings up the question as to whether or not the police can launch from either a random inspection or a suspicion of one possible crime to something entirely different before they’ve observed anything which would reasonably lead them to believe that another crime was taking place. I was alerted to this ruling by my own personal attorney … or doctor .. er, or something, Doug Mataconis, who clearly believes that the court muffed this one badly.

EDIT: (Jazz) The article was by Dr. James Joyner. My apologies for the error in attribution.

That individuals have a lower expectation of privacy in their cars than their homes is a long-established principle. Still, the notion that police have a right to search a car for drugs—and make no mistake, that’s what bringing a dog trained to sniff out drugs is: a search—without probable cause is outrageous.

I’ve got no sympathy for people who endanger the public safety driving stoned—much less those who do it in inherently dangerous commercial trucks. But, absence erratic driving or other indications that the operator was impaired, the Constitution rather clearly requires a search warrant issued by a magistrate.

I can’t decide where the rule of law comes down on this one myself, and thought I might toss it out to the crowd for your opinions. I began thinking of a situation where the police pull over somebody for running a stop sign. Let’s say they have a bag of cocaine in the back seat which they’ve none too cleverly hidden under a blanket. But the jostling of the car has dislodged the blanket and part of the bag is exposed. If the police see the bag, are they supposed to ignore it simply because it was a traffic stop? I mean, it could just be big plastic bag full of sugar, right?

If the dog is brought up to the car and smells drugs, even though there was no previous reason to believe the driver had any, it’s clearly “evidence” that there may well be a crime in progress. But is the dog “looking” for the crime when none was previously suspected a violation? If you get pulled over for speeding and the officer smells alcohol on your breath, he can pursue that investigation further, right? Why is it different with a drug sniffing dog?

You make the call. I’m not convinced either way at this point.