Posts Tagged ‘marijuana’

Walking a narrow line, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 in Florida v. Jardines that the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches of homes is unconstitutional.

In keeping with the Court’s recent decision in Florida v. Harris, in which the justices ruled unanimously that police may use drug dogs to conduct warrantless searches during traffic stops, the Court did not address the question of whether a drug dog’s sniff constitutes a violation of one’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Instead, the Court ruled that an officer bringing a drug-sniffing dog to the front of a home without a warrant constitutes an unconstitutional invasion of private property.

In an age in which the police can probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts, it’s difficult to really celebrate this ruling given that it basically just gives a head nod to the Fourth Amendment. What we are experiencing today is a slow death by a thousand cuts, only it’s the Fourth Amendment being inexorably bled to death. It remains to be seen whether today’s ruling by the Supreme Court proves to be little more than a band-aid fix to a rapidly worsening condition.

Florida v. Jardines arose out of an incident that took place in November 2006, when Miami police responded to an “anonymous” tip that marijuana was being grown at the residence of Joelis Jardines. After police surveillance of the Jardines home failed to reveal any incriminating evidence, the police brought in a drug-sniffing dog and handler to inspect the property at 7:30 a.m. The police handler walked the dog up to the front door on a leash and the dog allegedly “alerted” to the scent of contraband, which was reported to the investigating police who also approached the door and allegedly smelled marijuana. Using this information, the police obtained a warrant to search the Jardines residence, resulting in the seizure of marijuana plants.

In court, Jardines’ lawyer moved to suppress the evidence obtained under the warrant, insisting that the warrant itself was invalid because of its reliance on the alert by the drug-sniffing dog. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the use of detection dogs at private residences raises significant privacy concerns. The U.S. Supreme Court, having ruled in previous cases that dog sniffs do not constitute “searches” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, agreed to review the state court decision.

In weighing in on the matter, The Rutherford Institute had asked the Supreme Court to declare the warrantless use of drug-sniffing dogs in both scenarios, searches of homes and vehicles, to be unconstitutional in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. In an amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in Florida v. Jardines, Institute attorneys cited mounting empirical evidence that narcotics detection dogs are unreliable and inaccurate, pointing out that both anecdotal evidence and research show that dogs frequently signal false alerts and show sensitivity to handler bias. Institute attorneys also pointed out that the amount of time it takes for the dogs to carry out a detection sniff on the perimeter of a private residence constitutes a trespass under Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

The Court ruled unanimously in a similar case, Florida v. Harris, that police officers may use drug-sniffing dogs to conduct warrantless searches of cars during routine traffic stops. — John W. Whitehead

“The unspoken power dynamics in a police/civilian encounter will generally favor the police, unless the civilian is a local sports hero, the mayor, or a giant who is impervious to bullets.”—Journalist Justin Peters

From time to time throughout history, individuals have been subjected to charges (and eventual punishment) by accusers whose testimony was treated as infallible and inerrant. Once again, we find ourselves repeating history, only this time, it’s the police whose testimony is too often considered beyond reproach and whose accusations have the power to render one’s life over.

In the police state being erected around us, the police can probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts. Making matters worse, however, police dogs—cute, furry, tail-wagging mascots with a badge—have now been elevated to the ranks of inerrant, infallible sanctimonious accusers with the power of the state behind them. This is largely due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Florida v. Harris, in which a unanimous Court declared roadside stops to be Constitution-free zones where police may search our vehicles based upon a hunch and the presence of a frisky canine.

This is what one would call a slow death by a thousand cuts, only it’s the Fourth Amendment being inexorably bled to death. This latest wound, in which a unanimous Supreme Court determined that police officers may use drug-sniffing dogs to conduct warrantless searches of cars during routine traffic stops, comes on the heels of recent decisions by the Court that give police the green light to taser defenseless motorists, strip search non-violent suspects arrested for minor incidents, and break down people’s front doors without evidence that they have done anything wrong.

These are the hallmarks of the emerging American police state, where police officers, no longer mere servants of the people entrusted with keeping the peace, are part of an elite ruling class dependent on keeping the masses corralled, under control, and treated like suspects and enemies rather than citizens. Whether it’s police officers breaking through people’s front doors and shooting them dead in their homes or strip searching innocent motorists on the side of the road, in a police state such as ours, these instances of abuse are not condemned by the government. Rather, they are continually validated by a judicial system that kowtows to every police demand, no matter how unjust, no matter how in opposition to the Constitution.

The justices of the United States Supreme Court through their deference to police power, preference for security over freedom, and evisceration of our most basic rights for the sake of order and expediency have become the architects of the American police state.

The justices of the United States Supreme Court through their deference to police power, preference for security over freedom, and evisceration of our most basic rights for the sake of order and expediency have become the architects of the American police state.

In Florida v. Harris, for example, the Court was presented with the case of Clayton Harris who, in 2006, was pulled over by Officer William Wheetley for having an expired license tag. During the stop, Wheetley decided that Harris was acting suspicious and requested to search his vehicle. Harris refused, so Wheetley brought out his drug-sniffing dog, Aldo, to walk around Harris’ car. Aldo allegedly alerted to the door handle of Harris’ car, leading Wheetley to search the vehicle.

Although the search of Harris’ car did not turn up any of the drugs which Aldo was actually trained to detect, such as marijuana, Wheetley found pseudophedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicine, and other materials allegedly used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Harris was arrested and released on bail, during which time he was again stopped by Officer Wheetley and again subjected to a warrantless search of his vehicle based upon Aldo’s alert, but this time Wheetley found nothing.

Harris challenged the search, arguing that the police had not provided sufficient evidence that Aldo was a reliable drug-sniffing dog, thus his supposed alert on Harris’ door did not give the officer probable cause to search the vehicle. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, ruling that police should be able to prove that the dog actually has a track record of finding drugs while in the field before it is used as an excuse for a warrantless search.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court did not see it that way. In reversing the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with police by claiming that all that the police need to do to prove probable cause for a search is simply assert that a drug detection dog has received proper training. As such, the Court has now given the police free reign to use dogs as “search warrants on leashes,” justifying any and all police searches of vehicles stopped on the roadside. The ruling turns man’s best friend into an extension of the police state.

The Supreme Court’s decision is particularly alarming when one considers that drug sniffing dogs, even expertly trained dogs with reliable handlers, are rarely accurate. One study demonstrated that dogs were incorrect in drug identification up to 60% of the time. A 2011 study published in Animal Cognition involved a series of tests, some designed to fool the dog and some designed to fool the handler. The dogs in these tests falsely alerted 123 out of a total of 144 times. When a test was designed to fool the handler rather than the dog, the dog was twice as likely to falsely alert.

As the Animal Cognition study shows, dogs are heavily influenced by the behavior and biases of their handlers. If an officer thinks he is likely to find something, whether due to personal bias or because he finds the suspect suspicious, he often cues his dog—consciously or unconsciously—to alert on the area to be searched.

The Supreme Court has now given the police free reign to use dogs as “search warrants on leashes,” justifying any and all police searches of vehicles stopped on the roadside. The Court’s ruling in Florida v. Harris turns man’s best friend into an extension of the police state.

Despite being presented with numerous reports documenting flaws in the use of drug-detection dogs, the U.S. Supreme Court opted to ignore plentiful evidence that drug dog alerts are specious at best. Moreover, the justices also chose to interpret Aldo’s failure to detect any of the drugs he was trained to find during the two sniff searches around Harris’ car as proof of Aldo’s superior sniffing skills rather than glaring proof that drug-sniffing dogs do make mistakes. Incredibly, the Court suggested that the dog alert was due to Aldo having smelled an odor that was transferred to the car door after the defendant used methamphetamine—a supposition that is nearly impossible to prove.

Law enforcement officials have come up with a slew of clever excuses to “explain” the not uncommon phenomenon of dogs that alert but fail to uncover drugs. For example, in 2008, U.S. border patrol agent Christopher Jbara claimed that a dog alerted to a car containing no drugs because the car’s window “had been washed by a window washer on the street… and the water used to clean it could have been contaminated with bong water.” The real reason may be that the odors which dogs are trained to detect are simply chemical compositions found in a number of common products. For example, to a dog, perfume may smell like cocaine, glue may smell like heroin, and mosquito repellant may smell like the drug ecstasy.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision is merely the latest in a long line of abuses justified by an institution concerned more with establishing order and protecting government agents than with upholding the rights enshrined in the Constitution. For example, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Kentucky v. King that police may smash down doors of homes or apartments without a warrant when in search of illegal drugs which they suspect might be destroyed.  Despite the fact that police busted in on the wrong suspect in the wrong apartment, the Court sanctioned the warrantless raid, saying that police had acted lawfully and that was all that mattered.

In April 2012, a divided Supreme Court ruled in Florence v. Burlington that any person who is arrested and processed at a jail house, regardless of the severity of his or her offense (i.e., they can be guilty of nothing more than a minor traffic offense), can be subjected to a strip search by police or jail officials, which involves exposing the genitals and the buttocks.

This “license to probe” is being extended to roadside stops, as police officers throughout the country have begun performing roadside strip searches without any evidence of wrongdoing and without a warrant. For example, Angel Dobbs and her niece, who were pulled over by a Texas state trooper on July 13, 2012, allegedly for flicking cigarette butts out of the car window, were subjected to roadside cavity searches of their anus and vagina. The officer claimed to be searching for marijuana. No marijuana was found.

With case after case stacking up in which the courts empower the police to run roughshod over citizens’ rights, the Constitution be damned, the outlook is decidedly grim. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court still has to rule on another drug-sniffing, dog-related case, Florida v. Jardines, which challenges warrantless searches of individuals’ homes based on questionable dog alerts. For those hoping that our rights will be restored or at least protected, you could have a long wait.

Indeed, the next decision from the Supreme Court might just take the Fourth Amendment down for the count. — John W. Whitehead

Talk about freedom going to the dogs…

In a 9-0 decision in Florida v. Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that police may use drug-sniffing dogs to carry out warrantless searches during routine traffic stops, despite the fact that published scientific studies show that drug dog alerts are wrong as much as 56% of the time, and are heavily influenced by the biases of the dog’s handler.

This ruling undercuts the entire basis of the Fourth Amendment, which was designed to protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures. When dog sniffs, which have proven to be unreliable, are considered probable cause for police to search your property without a warrant—whether it’s your home, your car or your person—then none of our rights are secure.

As CBS News points out, “The irony in this case, Florida v. Harris, is that the trained narcotics dog (named Aldo) did not find the drugs he was trained to find when he prompted an officer to search Clayton Harris’ truck.”

The case began in June 2006, when a Florida county sheriff stopped a vehicle driven by Clayton Harris for an expired license tag. When Harris refused the sheriff’s request for consent to search his vehicle, a drug-detection dog was deployed and conducted a “free air sniff” of the exterior of the vehicle. When the dog alerted to the door handle on the driver’s side, the officer conducted a warrantless search of the interior of the vehicle. Although the search didn’t turn up anything the dog was trained to find, the officer reportedly found pseudoephedrine and materials used for making methamphetamine.

Harris was arrested and charged.

Two months later, Harris was once again pulled over in his vehicle by the same police officer and drug-sniffing dog. Once again the dog “alerted,” and once again the search failed to turn up anything for which the dog was trained to find. Only this time, nothing of interest was found whatsoever.

In court, Harris’ attorneys moved to suppress the evidence found as a result of the search of his vehicle, asserting that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The Florida Supreme Court granted the motion on appeal, however, ruling that the state’s claim that the dog was trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish the dog’s reliability for purposes of determining probable cause. The court held that the state has the burden of showing the officer had a reasonable basis for believing the dog was reliable by presenting evidence on matters such as training field performance records.

In asking the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s ruling, The Rutherford Institute documented empirical research showing dog alerts are not inherently reliable. One recent study at the University of California—Davis, showed that in a test where handlers were told drugs might be found at the test site, but no drugs were present, dogs gave false positive alerts an astonishing 85% of the time. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on a related case, Florida v. Jardines, which challenges the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches of private homes. The Rutherford Institute also filed an amicus brief in Florida v. Jardines. — John W. Whitehead