The US Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a case that could clarify when police can use drug-sniffing dogs to check cars of drivers who have given them no reason to suspect criminal activity. Police and prosecutors have argued that merely walking a dog around a vehicle did not constitute a search, but lower courts have not always bought that argument. Some have ruled that police must have specific suspicion before allowing a drug dog to search a vehicle at a traffic stop.
The case, Illinois v. Caballes, will be argued this fall, with a decision expected in the spring. It began when an Illinois state trooper pulled over Roy Caballes for speeding on Interstate 80. The trooper issued Caballes a warning ticket and asked his permission to search the vehicle. Caballes refused, but by then another trooper had arrived with a drug dog. The dog signaled that drugs were present, and on that basis, the troopers searched the vehicle, finding an estimated $250,000 worth of marijuana. Caballes was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 12 years in prison, but has been out on bond pending his appeal.
The use of drug dogs has become increasingly popular, and according to Ralph Meczyk, one of Caballes' lawyers, is now a favored tool of law enforcement seeking to find ways to search vehicles stopped for traffic violations. "It happens every day as we're speaking, all over the country," he told the Associated Press Monday. Drug dog alerts are "a convenient pretext" for a search, he said, asserting that in eight out of nine Illinois traffic stop searches initiated after drug dog alerts, no drugs were found.
The Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police and the national Major Cities Chiefs Association have filed briefs urging the court to uphold the suspicionless (non)searches. Drug dogs are effective, work fast, and pose little inconvenience for drivers, they argued.
The Rehnquist Court has generally been a friend of police searches, especially in the context of the war on drugs. In a 1983 case, the court ruled that drug dog sniffs did not constitute a search. On the other hand, the court in 2000 refused to allow random roadblocks to search for drugs. In that case, police used drug dogs to check vehicles at roadblocks in poor Indianapolis neighborhoods, but the court held that the roadblocks were unconstitutional suspicionless searches of passing drivers.
The case is Illinois v. Caballes,
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