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March 26, 2012

A dog-sniff cert grant and lots of GVRs after last week's SCOTUS criminal justice action

While most eyes and ears focused on the Supreme Court this week have a health-care-reform focus, the Justices today released an order list with some criminal justice doings (along with a couple civil case opinions).  Here are the basics via this SCOTUSblog post:

The court  announced  orders today from its March 23 conference.  The Court granted certiorari in one case, Florida v. Harris, involving the question of whether an alert by a well-trained narcotics detection dog certified to detect illegal contraband is sufficient to establish probable cause for the search of a vehicle.  The Court also issued orders granting, vacating, and remanding ten other cases in light of its prior decisions.  A number of the GVRs were in light of decisions the Court issued last week in Lafley v. CooperMissouri v. Frye [and] Martinez v. Ryan.

March 26, 2012 at 12:42 PM | Permalink


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I'm surprised the court took Flordia v Harris. That case really isn't about dog sniffing but about the "well-trained" aspect of the dog. No one disputes that the dog sniffed what it sniffed. The question is whether the dog is a competent dog to sniff those drugs.

It seems self-evident that the dog has to be certified in some way and that the courts can't just go on the police say-so.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 26, 2012 2:11:27 PM

Dennis Miller asked if dogs have a contest or a lottery to see who is lucky enough to be a drug dog and who loses and becomes a bomb-sniffing dog. LOL

Posted by: Scott | Mar 26, 2012 2:27:50 PM

There have been controlled studies about the accuracy of drug sniffing dogs. Surprisingly the dogs alerts are highly influenced by their trainers.

Posted by: beth | Mar 26, 2012 4:54:09 PM

beth --

Do you happen to know the accuracy rate? That is, out of every 100 "hits" on pieces of luggage, how many turn out actually to contain drugs?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 26, 2012 6:46:34 PM


The problem with dog sniffs is that they are too accurate. The dog can smell microscopic amounts of drug residue. The next problem is according US government studies, 85% of the money supply in the United States is contaminated. In fact a government scientist has indicated:

Residues of illicit drugs have been known since the 1980s to occur on banknotes (e.g., Aaron and
Lewis 1987; Table 1), primarily as a result of dermal transfer from drug users and transfer from
contact with bulk drugs themselves. Highly contaminated banknotes can, in turn, crosscontaminate
pristine banknotes in their proximity. Most studies have focused on cocaine, because of its propensity to become entrapped in banknote fibers and because of the use of banknotes for insufflation. Cocaine amounts exceeding 1 mg per banknote have been reported
(Oyler et al. 1996) - more than 1% of a typical dose. The contamination may be so pervasive that
large numbers of banknotes must be removed from general circulated each year (Thompson

Now if the contamination the government has uncovered is accurate then you have to ask yourself is Beth wrong about dog alerts being highly influenced by their trainers. I think the answer is Beth is right to some degree. We know that dog trainer cops need coffee and donuts like the rest of us and that they pay for those items. Query: Why is it that the drug dogs never alert to the money their trainers have in their pocket? Are cop dog trainers that lucky that they only get the uncontaminated 15% of currency?
One part of the answer probably is that the cop dog trainers have trained their dogs to not "alert" on the trainer. The other part of the answer is that given the amount of currency contamination and the fact we keep currency in our pockets and purses that like banknotes have fibers, it is probable that the dogs are alerting to the presence of a microscopic amount of drugs in 100 % of the cases. So the question I have is as it relates to dog sniffs, what level of detectable trace drug amount should be criminalized? According to 21 USC 841 it is any detectable amount. Lucky for us and you if you possess currency that drug possession has to be knowing. So dog sniffs are only a tool they don't establish a completed crime. Given the prevalence of currency contamination and other sources of contamination should we ascribe probable cause to a postive dog alert?

Posted by: ? | Mar 26, 2012 10:25:36 PM

There are two questions - do they alert too often when no drugs are found, perhaps because of trace substances? The second question is are they overly influenced by trainers. I do think that the answers are yes and yes.

One study showed that dogs were correct 44% of the time meaning that 56% of the searches did not produce any drugs. Perhaps this is due to trace substances.

Another study showed that dogs alerted when their handlers thought there were drugs in the room. The article is published in the Journal of Animal Cognition 2011, by Lit, Schweitzer, and Oberbauer.

Posted by: beth | Mar 27, 2012 12:15:01 AM

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