Are Drug Dogs That Are Used by Police to Search Vehicles for Drugs Reliable?

Jacksonville police and police officers all over Florida commonly use drug dogs or K-9’s that are trained to detect the odor of marijuana, crack, cocaine, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs to search for those drugs in vehicles and other areas. However, there is some question as to how reliable these drug dogs are in detecting the odor of illegal drugs. Drug dogs and the police officers who handle them are supposed to be trained and certified to assure that they are both skilled and qualified to accurately detect the odor of illegal drugs and give the appropriate signal in those circumstances. However, not all of these drug dogs are so qualified according to recent criminal cases and news articles.

In the traffic stop scenario, a common drug dog search may proceed as follows. A Jacksonville police officer would pull a driver over for some sort of moving traffic violation. If the Jacksonville police officer feels like he/she sees indications of drug possession, the officer may call for a drug dog to walk around the vehicle and smell for the odor of illegal drugs. Without probable cause to believe that drugs are in the vehicle, the police officer should conduct the drug dog search while the driver is in the process of getting his/her ticket for the moving violation. In other words, if the police officer has finished giving the driver a ticket or warning, that driver is free to leave and cannot be ordered to stay for the drug dog search unless the police officer has specific reasons to believe that the driver is committing a crime, such as possession of illegal drugs.

The police officer will either have his own drug dog present or he/she may call for a drug dog over the radio. Assuming a drug dog is present, or arrives, during the ticket-writing process or there is other specific evidence to suggest drugs are present, the police officer may have the right to walk the dog around the vehicle. As the drug dog walks around the vehicle, the dog may give a certain signal or alert that the odor of drugs is present. At that point, the police officer will likely search the vehicle for the suspected drugs.

One problem with this common scenario, as discussed in this article on Tampa’s newspaper’s website, is that some of these drug dogs are not very reliable. The Tampa article noted that drugs were only found in vehicles 50% of the time when one particular dog often used by the Tampa police alerted. A 50% success rate is not a sound basis to support probable cause to search someone’s property. Another drug dog in Manatee County, Florida alerted to the odor of alcohol in every vehicle he checked, although drugs were found in less than half of those vehicles. A dog who is going to alert to a vehicle every time a police officer brings it out to check defeats the purpose of using drug dogs and seriously undermines the Fourth Amendment rights of those people whose property is searched. As a result, criminal defense lawyers are checking the success and failure rates of these drug dogs to determine just how reliable they have been in the past and perhaps make a motion to the judge to have evidence of the drugs thrown out.

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