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Puppies, Privacy, and Probable Cause: SCOTUS Goes to the Dogs

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Franky and Aldo are the fuzzy-eared pawns in a legal showdown over dog-sniff searches. Franky is a chocolate Lab. Aldo is a German shepherd.

Wednesday, the two canine officers will dominate oral arguments in Florida v. Jardines and Florida v. Harris, two cases examining the relationship between dog sniff searches and the Fourth Amendment.

The cases involve distinctly different issues, Reuters reports: whether a dog can sniff outside a home without a warrant, and how qualified a dog must be to do a legitimate sniff.

In Jardines, police officers brought Franky to Joelis Jardines' home in response to a crime stoppers tip that there was marijuana was growing inside. Franky sniffed the house and alerted his handlers, which was sufficient evidence for the cops to obtain a search warrant. Jardines' was later arrested for possessing more than 25 pounds of marijuana.

The Florida Supreme Court called Franky's sniff an "unreasonable government intrusion into the sanctity of the home," likening it to the warrantless infrared thermal imaging that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected in 2001's Kyllo v. U.S.

In Harris, the cops enlisted Aldo to conduct a "free air sniff" around Clayton Harris' truck after discovering the Harris had an expired tag and an open container. (The cops had asked for permission to search the vehicle, but Harris refused.) After Aldo alerted, police search Harris' vehicle and found 200 pseudoephedrine pills and 8,000 matches, (which are ingredients for methamphetamine), according to Reuters.

Once again, Florida's highest court stepped in, this time tossing Aldo's search because the state had not demonstrated Aldo's reliability as a drug detector with evidence of his training, certification and performance, and his handler's experience.

Law enforcement generally argues that using a drug-sniffing dog is not a "search," because the dog only alerts to something that is illegal; they claim that no one has a privacy right in illegal activity, SCOTUSblog explains.

Florida Attorney General Pamela Jo Bondi argued in the state's Jardines brief that law enforcement will be significantly hampered if required to develop probable cause without the assistance of dog, noting that the Florida Supreme Court's decision requires that the officers have probable cause before employing a dog. It is the dog's alert, she claims, that often provides the probable cause to obtain the search warrant, Wired reports.

How do you feel about police using dog-sniff searches to establish probable cause for a search? Are you comfortable with dog sniffs taking a bite out of privacy as long as they take a bite out of crime?

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