Does a visit from Fido represent an egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee that citizens are free from unreasonable searches and seizures?
The dogs are back in court again. It wasn't all that long ago that the nation's highest court was adjudicating the legitimacy of a dog's sniff during a police stop in Illinois.
The court came down on the dog's side in the Illinois case. But now two cases from Florida (Franky's sniff outside a Florida residence and Aldo's sniff outside a pickup truck) have the justices grappling with the issue of what constitutes a probable cause search in drug cases.
In both cases, the dogs hit the jackpot. Franky sniffed out 25 pounds of marijuana inside the residence. Aldo sniffed out materials necessary to make methamphetamine that were inside the truck.
But were the sniffs legally sufficient? The justices Wednesday heard arguments on the issue and appeared to take a dim view of Franky's handler showing up on someone's doorstep to conduct a cursory search of the premises via Franky's discerning nose. Conservative and liberal justices both appeared concerned about citing the house sniff as justification for a thorough search.
"It seems to me crucial that this officer went onto a portion of the house as to which there is privacy, and used a means of discerning what was in that house that should not have been available," said Justice Antonin Scalia.
In the world of constitutional law, searches of houses and vehicles are subject to different standards.
Houses are fixed while vehicles move, so police have more pressing needs during a vehicle stop.
In the truck stop, the issue is reliability. The Florida Supreme Court ruled Aldo's sniff search illegal because of concerns that dogs are too frequently wrong when they alert their handlers to suspicious objects. The question in this case is whether dogs and their handlers should be certified for demonstrated reliability. On this question, the judges appeared less convinced by dog critics.
Oral arguments, however, are not a reliable indicator of how the high court will rule. But one thing is certain — search and seizure cases, whether they involve dog sniffs or more high-tech means of ferreting out wrongdoing, will remain a mainstay on the court's docket.