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Criminal Defense, Drug Crimes

Ohio Canine Drug Sniffs And Your Constitutional Rights

Police Dog Sniffs in Ohio

Law enforcement agencies in Ohio and across the country have utilized canines for more than 100 years. The most legally confusing use of these dogs is their ability to identify drugs and other contraband. As such, it is important to know the legal aspects of police dog sniffs and your rights.

Legal Limitations of Police Canines

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by the government. For a search and seizure to be valid, it must be based on probable cause, and executed pursuant to a valid search warrant, unless an exception applies. To have probable cause, police must have facts that support their belief that a crime has or is being committed, and not just “a hunch.” The Ohio State Constitution echoes these laws. Thus, any activity performed by police sniffing canines constitutes a government action and is subject to the Fourth Amendment.

Generally, police dog drug sniffs during a lawful traffic stop do not violate the Fourth Amendment. Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U.S. 405 (2005). However, the law is very clear that police may not extend a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff without reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. Rodriguez v. U.S., 575 U.S. ____ (2015). The Supreme Court of the United States has also held that if police improperly extend the duration of a traffic stop, then their actions would be unlawful, and any evidence retained thereof would be excluded. Id.

Typical police procedures for a routine traffic stop usually include checking the driver’s license, registration, proof of insurance, and, running a warrant check. Generally, if a dog sniff is conducted within this time frame, it is legal. However, if the officer does not conduct the dog sniff before the routine procedures end, then it cannot be legally performed unless separate, reasonable suspicion of criminal activity is established by the officer.

Sniffing Around Your Home and In Public Spaces

If a police dog is used to conduct a sniff of a person’s home, it is classified as a search under the Fourth Amendment, and thus, requires a warrant or other specific reasoning. The Fourth Amendment applies even if the dog sniff is performed outside of the home, such as around the perimeter of one’s house or patio. Florida v. Jardines, 569 U.S. 1 (2013). Thus, a police dog sniff usually cannot legally occur inside or outside of a person’s home without a valid warrant supported by probable cause.

Common public areas where you may observe police dogs at work include transport stations, malls, or sidewalks. The Supreme Court decided long ago that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy while on public property. This also means that the right to privacy does not extend to the air, bag or vehicle surrounding one’s body or personal property. Therefore, dog sniffs are typically legal in public spaces without limitation.

How Accurate Are Dog Sniffs?

Multiple studies have found that drug-dog alerts result in exceedingly high error rates. These studies make a crucial point of clarifying that any error rate is not necessarily attributed to a dog’s inability to sniff out contraband, but rather, due to their psychological “desire to please” their trainers. While we think of law enforcement canines as highly intelligent animals, improper training and poor execution of commands can result in unreliable findings. Further, studies have found that placebo packages designed to trick handlers into thinking they contained drugs were much more likely to trigger false positive sniffs than packages designed to trick the dogs.

Simply put, a dog that is likely to produce false positives is detrimental to one’s liberty and due process rights. The court system’s general lackluster response to the outcries concerning such inaccuracies give police agencies little incentive to fix these fundamental problems. To further complicate the issue, drug sniffing dogs can be trained to ignore lesser amounts of drugs, known as “trace” or “remnants,” that do not amount to arrest-worthy quantities. Many law enforcement agencies purposely avoid training their dogs in such manners, as doing so would naturally result in less alerts, and thus, less opportunities to further searches and seizures.

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The legality of police canine sniffs continues to be a forefront issue and is ever-changing. Attorney Brad Wolfe is a criminal defense attorney in Cleveland, Ohio, who handles matters involving dog sniffs. If you, or a loved one, have been charged with a crime, or are under investigation, Attorney Wolfe is available 24/7 at (216) 815-6000.
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