My Bassett Hound, Tiberius, has a nose that can pick up on just about any scent. If we accidentally let him out of the back yard, he will always pick up on a smell and “off he goes.” Sometimes, we find him over a mile from home.
My family has gotten better about keeping “Tibie” in the back yard. However, our puppy helped prompt the idea of writing about one of the most interesting ways that police officers enforce the law; the use of “drug dogs.”
Drug dogs, sometimes referred to as K-9s, are animals that have been trained to smell and identify the locations of illegal drugs and other contraband. While Bassett Hounds are not often called in for duty, other breeds, such as German Shepherds, are well suited for the detection of drugs, the search for fugitives, lost persons, and other substances involved in law enforcement tasks.
Police officers have used dogs for decades. Officers who frequently train, care for, and use these animals will typically develop a very close bond with the dog. In K-9 units across the country, they are truly a beloved “part of the team.”
Well, how can dogs be legally used in the enforcement of criminal laws? Fortunately for officers and prosecutors, the courts have provided wide latitude for the use dogs in a variety of scenarios; particularly in the area of drug enforcement.
The United States Supreme Court ruled that police do not need reasonable suspicion to use drug dogs to sniff a vehicle during a legitimate traffic stop. The Court, which was divided 6-2, held in Illinois v. Caballas that the Fourth Amendment (the constitutional safeguard against unreasonable searches and seizures) is not implicated when police use a dog sniff during the course of a legal traffic stop. The key here is that the traffic stop must be legal.
The Court reasoned that since dog sniffs only identify the presence of illegal items (where citizens have no legitimate privacy interest) the Fourth Amendment does not apply to their use.
Basically, the Court has authorized police to walk a drug dog around a vehicle during the vast majority of legitimate traffic stops. If the dog signals that it smells drugs, police then have probable cause to conduct a search of the vehicle.
However, the ruling does not allow police to detain a person indefinitely until dogs arrive. The legitimacy of the traffic stop still depends on a number of other factors that make the stop legal or illegal. The most frequent issues that comes up during a canine search is whether the officer has the requisite information to detain a motorist beyond a minor traffic stop and was the detention too prolonged.
For example, an officer usually won’t have a police dog on hand when he or she believes that reasonable suspicion exists to detain a person while waiting for the drug dog. If a judge later determines that the officer had no justification to detain you until the dog arrived, any evidence discovered by the dog may be inadmissible at trial.
While the courts have provided for very broad use of dogs in the enforcement of criminal laws, the use of dogs does have its limitations. Random dog sniffs in parking lots, sidewalks, street corners, and random drug sniffs at checkpoints and roadblocks are not authorized by law.
Additionally, there are legal challenges pending regarding the use and reliability of drug dogs. But, for now, the “drug dog” will continue to be widely used on the interstates, roads, and other permissible places across the state of Georgia and the United States.