Drug-Sniffing Dogs: Search Warrant on a Leash?



Drug detection dogs are deployed in a wide range of law enforcement operations. They are often present at schools, airports, security checkpoints, traffic stops, stadiums, theme parks, festivals, and other venues. In Florida, dogs help to apprehend suspects through tracking and searching, evidence location, drug detection, and search and seizure operations. Their strong sense of smell is a powerful resource in the detection of illegal substances. When trained, they can detect the smell of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, opiates, ecstasy, and LSD.

Accuracy of Drug Detection Dogs

 Drug sniffing dogs are a valuable tool for law enforcement, but they are not perfect. Multiple studies have shown alarmingly high error rates. Unfortunately, a lack of training, testing reliability, and certification standards for drug detection dogs lead to false positive alerts. A false alert lends to the innocent being subjected to an unjust search that is traumatic and humiliating.

Violation of Fourth Amendment Rights

The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects persons from unreasonable searches and seizures. Many believe that an arrest based on probable cause provided by a canine officer violates their rights. Drug detection dogs have been controversial in the United States legal arena for many years, as searches occur without a warrant. Civil rights activists claim that the handlers’ behavior influences narcotic detection dog responses.

Florida Law Case Studies

  • Florida v. Harris (2013)- An officer conducted a traffic stop due to an expired tag. The defendant refused to consent to search the truck, so the officer deployed a canine officer to walk around the vehicle. The dog alerted the handler of the presence of drugs. A search of the vehicle took place, and an arrest was made. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if a dog is certified to detect narcotics, its roadside alerts are enough to establish probable cause for a search. However, the court did not address qualifiers on how reputable the certifying organizations should be or whether certification would ensure that the dog has been trained to disregard its innate desire to please its handler.
  • Florida v. Jardines (2013)- This trial was about privacy and property rights. Based on a dog’s alert of the presence of marijuana, law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant to enter and seize evidence at a private home. The United States Supreme Court ruled to suppress the evidence, as the officers engaged in a Fourth Amendment search unsupported by probable cause. The property owner had not invited the officers onto their property. Introducing a police canine to explore the home in hopes of finding incriminating evidence was considered a government intrusion.

 Reliability Studies

The National Institute of Justice conducted a study in 2008 and reported that drug-sniffing dogs are more likely to alert when they are not adequately trained. The study found that dogs not trained to distinguish between drugs and other things were more likely to alert even when no drugs were present. It suggests that drug-sniffing dogs can only be reliable if they are appropriately trained.

A study by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2006 found that drug-sniffing dogs were accurate about 70% of the time. This study also suggested that dogs may be biased against minorities. Studies that are more recent have reported higher error rates, suggesting the dog’s error rate can exceed 50%.

Grounds to Challenge an Arrest:

  • The handler did not correctly train the dog
  • There was no probable cause to use the dog
  • The handler cued the dog to alert through intentional or unintentional body language
  • The canine officer was trying to please the handler
  • The drug detection dog was on private property without an invitation from the property owner
  • The dog’s field accuracy rate is insufficient
  • The law enforcement officer has insufficient training in handling the dog

The AP Law Group is Dedicated to the Preservation of Constitutional Rights

If you face drug charges, The AP Law Group can examine the evidence for weaknesses in the prosecution’s case against you. Given the controversial nature of narcotic sniffing dogs, under certain circumstances the evidence in your case may be suppressed. The AP Law Group provides quality criminal defense and is committed to finding solutions. Our attorneys are fierce negotiators and seasoned litigators with decades of experience protecting the rights of their clients.

Contact our Ocala or Gainesville, Florida offices to schedule an appointment with The AP Law Group at (352)732-9191. We handle all misdemeanor, felony, and federal crimes. We are here to help.