Pubdate: Sat, 29 Jan 2005
Source: Des Moines Register (IA)
Copyright: 2005 The Des Moines Register.
Cited: Illinois v. Caballes
Action: Supreme Court Gives Drug Dogs Free Rein


Supreme Court Oversees Steady Erosion of Rights.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says the government
shall not conduct "unreasonable" searches and seizures. The U.S.
Supreme Court has steadily redefined "reasonable" to mean just about
whatever the cops think it means. A ruling handed down by the court
this week is in keeping with that tradition.

In a 6-2 decision, the court held that after having stopped a motorist
for a traffic violation, officers may walk around the car with a
drug-sniffing dog, even in the absence of any suspicion of illegal
activity. And if the dog indicates the presence of drugs, the police
may then search the vehicle.

This is disappointing, not in the least because it was written by an
otherwise passionate advocate of protecting the rights of criminal
suspects: Justice John Paul Stevens, who is sitting in for the ailing
Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

There must be something about the job that clouds clear thinking about
civil liberties. Otherwise, Stevens should have seen the potential
danger in a ruling that could give police carte blanche to conduct
searches with drug dogs. As Justices David Souter and Ruth Bader
Ginsburg warned in separate dissents, the majority's opinion may have
opened the door to infringements of Fourth Amendment

The court tried to diminish the constitutional implications of this
decision by saying that use of a dog trained to sniff out illegal
drugs in a legitimate traffic stop is not a search under the Fourth
Amendment. That is because the dog is trained to identify only illegal
drugs the defendant had no legitimate privacy interest in possessing.

Souter pointed out, however, that drug-sniffing dogs are capable of
error. They are not infallible, and a "substantial portion" of U.S.
currency bears traces of drugs sufficient to alert a dog.

"In practical terms," Souter said, "the dog that alerts hundreds of
times will be wrong dozens of times." Thus, an illegal search could
result if the dog mistakenly leads police to rummage through perfectly
legal personal belongings.

The court stopped short of saying police may use drug dogs on streets
or sidewalks to sniff out contraband without at least some legitimate
reason. Given the court's increasingly liberal definition of what
constitutes an unreasonable search, it's not hard to imagine the court
eventually taking that step. 
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