Police Dogs v. the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

How familiar are you with the protections guaranteed to you under the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution? Most people have heard terms associated with the 4th Amendment but may not understand how its protections apply in everyday situations. The 4th Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures…” and was crafted to protect the people from government action (or those acting on behalf of the government.) This means you are protected from police invasion of your person, property, or things when there is no arrest or search warrant and no exception to the necessary warrant.

Many times the police attempt to use a trained dog, K-9, to justify a search. Since a dog’s nose can detect the faintest of odors far beyond what a human can detect, it is common to see a police dog passing through airports sniffing luggage or circling a vehicle on the side of the road during a traffic stop looking for contraband and drugs. In order for the police to search a person’s legitimate area where they have an expectation of privacy under the 4th Amendment, the police need probable cause. That probable cause can be developed by using a dog to sniff out and alert to what might be contraband or drugs.

The issue with dog searches focuses on the credibility of the dog including the dog’s training and performance record. Some programs, such as the one employed by the United States Custom Service, put its dog and handler through a rigorous twelve-week training course where many of the dogs do not pass the training. The dog must be trained not to miss illegal contraband or drugs and how to avoid false alerts while ignoring potential distractions such as food, harmless drugs, and left over scents. Similarly, many issues can be raised as to whether the handler has the proper training, whether the dog was utilized correctly, and whether the handler read the dog’s signals correctly.

Because there are different training programs used and theories as to why a dog has an enhanced ability to detect small levels of odorous material, the fact a dog is trained and certified in and of itself, without evidence of reliability, only gives the police a suspicion and not probable cause to search. Usually, little can be done at the time of the search to prevent it, instead, the dog’s reliability is debated later in court after the search has happened.

Typically, if a search is determined to be unlawful then any evidence discovered is suppressed and unused. However, if the dog’s alert is determined to be unreliable and the search unlawful, the contraband or drugs may still be used if a person voluntary consented to a search of their person, luggage, vehicle or things. Therefore, it is not advisable to consent to a search unless you first consult with an attorney.

Categories: Criminal Law