Police Dog Alert Justifies Search of Car, High Court Says

Police officers can search someone’s car after a trained dog outside the vehicle alerts to the presence of drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a victory for law enforcement.

Dogs that have successfully completed a training program are typically reliable enough to provide the legal basis for a full-scale car search, Justice Elena Kagan wrote for a unanimous court. She said criminal defendants would have the right to challenge a particular dog’s reliability.

Police have “a strong incentive to use effective training and certification programs, because only accurate drug-detection dogs enable officers to locate contraband without incurring unnecessary risks or wasting limited time and resources,” Kagan wrote.

The ruling comes in one of two Florida dog-sniff cases before the justices. The court will rule later this year on the second case, concerning whether police can constitutionally bring a dog to the door of a house in the hope the animal might detect narcotics. Both cases concern the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.

In a separate decision today, a divided court limited the authority of police officers who have a warrant to search a home or other location. Previous Supreme Court cases have said that officers executing a warrant can also search anyone found on the premises.

Divided Court

In today’s 6-3 ruling, the court said police in Wyandanch, New York, went too far after they followed two men who had just left an apartment that officers were preparing to search. Officers stopped the men, frisked them and discovered that one carried a key to the apartment. The search team at the apartment had already found a gun and illicit drugs.

The case produced an unusual lineup. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Republican appointee, wrote the court’s majority opinion. Justice Stephen Breyer, nominated by a Democratic president, joined Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, appointed by Republicans, in dissenting.

The Florida vehicle case involved the use of a trained dog after a police officer stopped Clayton Harris for driving his pickup truck with an expired license plate. After the dog, named Aldo, gave an alert at the driver’s-side door handle, the officer concluded that he had the legal right to search the truck.

The search produced ingredients for making methamphetamine, and Harris later admitted that he had purchased the items to make the drug. The Florida Supreme Court struck down Harris’s conviction, saying the government didn’t do enough to show that the dog could reliably detect illegal drugs.

The cases are Florida v. Harris, 11-817, and Bailey v. United States, 11-770.

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