When police officers in Virginia suspect that a driver might have drugs in his or her vehicle, they might call for the assistance of K-9 units. These dogs are trained to alert when they detect the smell of drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, and others. While dogs have a much better sense of smell than humans and can detect the presence of substances of concentrations as low as one part per trillion, K-9 dogs are not infallible and can make mistakes. However, the courts have often upheld warrantless searches after drug dogs alert on vehicles.
Problem of false positives
In an analysis of drug dog searches in Louisville, Kentucky, investigative reporters at the Courier Journal found that 45% of the warrantless searches following drug dog alerts in the city yielded no narcotics. This means that people who should not have been subjected to searches were forced to go through them anyway. Some experts believe that drug dogs might alert to the presence of odors of drugs that were consumed in the vehicle or that were previously present. However, even if drugs were previously present and are no longer there, searches following drug dog alerts that yield no drugs waste resources and invade the privacy of the motorists who are subjected to them.
Credibility of drug dog searches in courts
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using a drug dog and following its alert on a vehicle with a warrantless search does not violate the search and seizure prohibitions of the Fourth Amendment. While some dogs perform much better than others, the Supreme Court held in a different case in 2013 that the performance history of a dog is irrelevant in the context of searches and seizures as long as the dog is certified at least annually. This means that a warrantless search following the alert of a drug dog will likely be upheld by the court.
People who are charged with drug crimes following these types of searches might benefit from consulting with experienced criminal defense lawyers. Drug charge conviction can result in severe penalties and can permanently impact people’s lives. An attorney might identify the defenses to raise and work to secure a better resolution.