A Times Editorial

Privacy rights at stake in two Florida cases

The nation's decades-long war on drugs also has been a war on privacy. Bit by bit the courts have watered down federal constitutional protections against unreasonable searches by giving police ever wider discretion to search cars and property. Two drug-related cases from Florida are set to be heard today by the U.S. Supreme Court that will decide whether privacy rights will be further eroded.

One case asks whether police can bring drug-sniffing dogs to a home's front door without a warrant. The other will determine whether an alert by a drug-sniffing police dog standing alone is sufficient to conduct a lawful search. The Florida Supreme Court in both cases correctly came down on the side of privacy rights.

The Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. Generally that means law enforcement must obtain a warrant or have probable cause of criminal activity before conducting an intrusive search. But the cases of Florida vs. Jardines and Florida vs. Harris raise the specter of police conducting dragnet operations against innocent owners — precisely what the Fourth Amendment is designed to prevent.

In Jardines, a drug detection dog with the Miami-Dade Police Department was brought to the front door of a residential house for a "sniff test." It alerted to the odor of narcotics, police obtained a search warrant, and marijuana was found growing in the house.

Typically when drug-sniffing dogs are used around cars during a traffic stop or on luggage at airports the courts have found those acts so minimally intrusive that they don't constitute a government search and no probable cause is necessary. But the Florida Supreme Court appropriately rejected that view for a private home.

Similarly in Harris, the Florida Supreme Court put reasonable limits on what constitutes a lawful search. The court said that an alert by a drug detection dog justifies the search of a vehicle only when the dog's skills are reliable. Numerous studies have shown that drug detection dogs are not foolproof. They too easily alert for reasons other than the presence of narcotics, such as miscues by their handlers or residual smells.

In the Harris case the same drug detection dog alerted to Clayton Harris' truck twice over two months. The first time the dog alerted to a drug it had not been trained to sniff out. The second time it alerted but no drugs were found, raising obvious concerns about the dog's abilities. The Florida Supreme Court threw out the drug evidence from the first search.

These drug-related cases have implications for the privacy rights of every American. The Florida Supreme Court's rulings hold the government to its duty to leave people alone absent evidence of criminal activity, a principle the U.S. Supreme Court should affirm by leaving the rulings in place.

Privacy rights at stake in two Florida cases 10/30/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 6:42pm]

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