Pubdate: Wed, 26 Jan 2005
Source: Kansas City Star (MO)
Copyright: 2005 The Kansas City Star


The Supreme Court has eroded constitutional protections with its decision 
Monday that police dogs can sniff for drugs during routine traffic stops.

The ruling allows police to put trained dogs to work without probable cause 
or even reasonable suspicion of a crime.

The 6-2 decision, which set aside a ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court, 
seems to open the door for routine use of drug dogs around and even on 
private property. It could also raise the risks of racial profiling.

The high court ruled that Illinois state troopers did not violate defendant 
Roy Caballes' protection from unlawful search by allowing a drug dog to 
sniff his car after he was stopped for driving six miles per hour over the 
speed limit. After the dog reacted to the scent of drugs, the officers 
opened the trunk and found $250,000 worth of narcotics.

The court majority contends the sniff did not violate Caballes' privacy 
because the only information it provided was the presence of contraband. In 
other words, a sniff, if successful, is not a search.

Don't tell that to a dog on the hunt. Even to human ears, it sounds 
implausible. Under Fourth Amendment precedents, even brief pat-down 
searches require "reasonable suspicion" of illegal activity. Canine sniffs 
of private property should be held to at least that standard.

Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in dissenting opinions, 
correctly worried about the scope of the ruling.

Under today's decision, every traffic stop could become an occasion to call 
in the dogs, to the distress and embarrassment of the law-abiding 
populations," Ginsburg wrote.

Souter said the ruling "provides no apparent stopping point" for sniff 
searches in parking lots and garages, on sidewalks, and even outside of 
people's homes.

A major concern is that some police departments could begin using drug dogs 
as a routine tool in minority neighborhoods. The dogs have their place, but 
they can be a frightening presence. Police departments must put procedures 
in place to ensure trained dogs are not misused.

Caballes was sentenced to 12 years in prison for drug trafficking. He is 
not a defendant who inspires sympathy. But his case resulted in a precedent 
ripe for trouble. A dog sniff smells a lot like a search. Police should 
have good cause before that happens.
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