Monday, January 24, 2005

Beware Cop Dogs

The U.S. Supreme Court released its opinion today in Illinois v. Caballes, in which the Court took up the topic of drug-sniffing dogs. Caballes was legitimately pulled over for speeding by a state trooper. Another trooper heard about the stop on the police radio, so he went to the location with his drug-snorting dog. While the first cop wrote Caballes a ticket, the other walked the dog around the outside of Caballes's car. The dog "alerted" to the trunk which, sure enough, contained lots of pot. Caballes was convicted and sentenced to 12 years. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed his conviction, holding that the dog sniff was a search that needed to be based on some sort of suspicion. In other words, cops could not routinely walk a dog around cars they stopped for traffic violations.

The Supreme Court reversed, 6-2 (Rehnquist not participating again). Justice Stevens wrote the majority opinion, in which the Court held that the only thing drug dogs detect is the presence of drugs and we citizens have no reasonable expectation of privacy in contraband. Therefore, since the dog sniff isn't even really a search, the Fourth Amendment isn't implicated and such routine road-side snorts are perfectly constitutional. The more interesting dissent, from Souter, challenged the assumption underlying the majority opinion - that the drug dogs never make mistakes. Such completely competent canines are a "legal fiction," according to Souter. It will be interesting to see if defense attorneys pick up the hint and begin to hammer on dog reliability in such cases.

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