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Police dogs can be trained for many different purposes, ranging from bomb detection to tracking down fleeing suspects and missing persons.  But while K-9 units are incredibly versatile, they are most famous for their drug detection abilities.  So what rules and regulations do officers have to follow when it comes to drug sniffer dogs?  When can they be used?  How accurate are their results? What if the officers don’t have a warrant?  Our Philadelphia police brutality lawyers explain your legal rights.

When an officer has probable cause, it means that his or her belief that a crime occurred is supported by physical evidence, information from witnesses, the officer’s own observations of apparent criminal activity, or other facts.  The standard for establishing probable cause is more rigorous than simply having a hunch or suspicion, but falls short of proving the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  The existence of probable cause is evaluated during the preliminary hearing or “prelim.”  In fact, preliminary hearings are sometimes referred to as probable cause hearings.

While the concepts are similar, the core difference between probable cause and reasonable suspicion is that the former implies an officer’s belief that a crime is occurring, will occur, or has occurred, while the latter implies a suspicion.  The other key distinction is that reasonable suspicion grants the officer the right to detain the suspect, and to frisk him or her for weapons possession.

Believe it or not, police need neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to conduct a sniffer dog drug search during a routine traffic stop, as established by the Supreme Court in Illinois v. Caballes.  In his delivery of the court’s opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that sniffer dog searches did not violate Fourth Amendment rights, because a reasonable expectation of privacy does not apply to illegal narcotics.

In other words, officers are allowed to walk sniffer dogs around your vehicle during a routine traffic stop.  Furthermore, any positive signal may be deemed probable cause to perform a search.

However, you do have some protection in this situation.  Because police cannot detain suspects indefinitely, you cannot be held for an unreasonable amount of time should the officer need to wait on a K-9 unit to arrive.  Additionally, if police ask for your permission to perform a search, you have a right to deny consent.

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On one hand, dogs are renowned for their incredible sense of smell.  Dog noses possess more than 200 million receptors compared to fewer than 10 million in humans, and some breeds can even detect items which are completely submerged underwater.

However, the accuracy of drug sniffing dogs has been called into question time and time again.  Even the American Society of Canine Trainers (ASCT) acknowledges surprisingly poor accuracy rates, pointing out averages as low as 62%.  Sometimes dogs’ noses are actually too powerful, detecting trace scents left behind by drugs which are no longer physically present.

In January of 2011, the Chicago Tribune published a sniffer dog accuracy report based on three years of data culled from various suburban departments.  The Tribune found that fewer than half of all drug dog alerts actually resulted in officers discovering illegal narcotics: only 44% of all instances. The remaining 56% of signals were false positives.  Even more alarmingly, the success rate dropped to 27% in cases involving Hispanic suspects.

Unfortunately, the questionable accuracy of sniffer dogs has not been as impactful as one might expect.  In the case of Florida v. Harris, defendant Clayton Harris was charged with possession of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine.  The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the sniffer dog’s reliability had not been demonstrated sufficiently, and therefore probable cause was not established.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court later rejected this ruling, holding that police were not required to demonstrate K-9 reliability.  The Supreme Court ruled that an alert could constitute probable cause, provided either:

Don’t assume that police officers are always in the right.  If you feel you were subjected to an unlawful drug search by the Philadelphia Police Department, you deserve to have the matter investigated by experienced Pennsylvania police brutality attorneys.

The accomplished legal team at Krasner & Long handles a variety of police brutality lawsuits and civil rights violations, including excessive force, police misconduct, and wrongful arrests.  Our Chester County criminal defense attorneys are also prepared to fight drug possession charges on your behalf.

To set up a free and completely confidential case evaluation, call our law offices at (215) 882-9752 today.  We will always keep your information private.

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