WASHINGTON - When a police dog sniffs the air to detect drugs, is it conducting a police search? The Supreme Court said yesterday that it will decide.
The Constitution forbids "unreasonable searches" by the police, and in the past the high court has said officers may not search a car for drugs unless they have some reason to suspect the motorist is breaking the law.
In November, the Illinois Supreme Court threw out drug charges against a motorist who was stopped for speeding on Interstate 80.
After one officer had stopped the car, a second police officer arrived and circled the car with a "drug-detection dog."
When the dog smelled something in the trunk, the officer opened it and found marijuana inside. The motorist, Ray Caballes, was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
In reversing his conviction, the Illinois court in a 4-3 decision said this "canine sniff" amounted to an unjustified search.
Yesterday, however, the Supreme Court said it would hear the state's appeal.
State prosecutors asked the high court to rule that a dog sniffing the air does not amount to a search.
"A canine sniff is not a search under the Fourth Amendment," Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in her appeal.
She cited past decisions involving luggage and highway checkpoints in which the justices said that the use of a drug-sniffing dog did not invalidate a legitimate search.
Moreover, a sniffing dog does not violate anyone's right to privacy, she said, because dogs simply detect odors in the air.
"Drug-detection dogs have become an effective and widely used law enforcement tool," she said. They have been used at airports to sniff baggage and in some schools to detect drugs in lockers and classrooms.
Despite approving comments in their past opinions, the justices have not ruled squarely on whether a sniffing dog amounts to a search by police.
In the Illinois case, the state judges said that while officers had the full authority to pull over a speeding motorist and to ask him questions, they did not have the authority to bring in a drug-sniffing dog to check the vehicle.
"Calling in a canine unit unjustifiably broadened the scope of an otherwise routine traffic stop into a justification," the state Supreme Court said.
If that decision is upheld, it could limit the use of drug-sniffing dogs to situations where the police have reason to suspect the drug laws are being violated.
However, if the high court disagrees and rules that the use of a drug-sniffing dog is not a search, the decision could give police even greater leeway in using canines as drug detectors.
The case will be heard during the fall session.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.