Antonio Villaraigosa Criminal Justice Immigration & Justice Presidential Race Supreme Court

The Accuracy of Drug-Sniffing Dogs and the Issue of Probable Cause, Why Criminal Justice is Missing from the Presidential Campaigns, and LA City Council Says “Yes” to Immigrant I.D.s


The US Supreme Court will hear two new cases on Oct. 31st to determine whether the use of drug-sniffing dogs is a violation of the Fourth Amendment as “unreasonable search and seizure”—as in, how accurate does a dog’s sniffer have to be for their “alert” to constitute probable cause, and can officers have dogs sniff around the outside of residences in the hopes of being tipped off to drugs inside?

Law Professor Jeffrey Meyer breaks it down in an op-ed for the NY Times. Here’s a clip:

One of the new cases asks the court to clarify how accurate a dog must be in terms of its past identification of contraband — for, as Justice David H. Souter once warned in dissent, “The infallible dog, however, is a creature of legal fiction.”

My wife and I learned this firsthand at the Supreme Court itself several years ago. We were visiting the court for a reunion dinner of former law clerks of Justice Harry A. Blackmun. My mistake was to drive a car in which our dog — a tennis-ball-loving Australian shepherd — often rode. As we drove up to the back gate of the court to enter its highly secure underground parking garage, an officer emerged from a guard shack with a fearsome bomb-sniffing German shepherd and circled our car. The bomb dog suddenly perked up, and the officer coldly instructed me to open the trunk of my car. I watched as the court’s canine rose up on its haunches — tail wagging — and snagged from inside one of my dog’s prized tennis balls. No bombs or contraband were found.

The second of the court’s new dog cases asks if the police may take a drug-sniffing dog to the front porch of a home to sniff for evidence of marijuana inside. The court has always accorded special privacy protection for people’s homes. In 2001, the court ruled, in an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, that police officers violated a homeowner’s privacy when they parked across the street from a home and, without a warrant, used a thermal imaging device to scan the outside of the house for signs of unusual heat inside that might be caused by high-intensity lighting, which is often used to grow marijuana.

If the police can’t thermal-scan your home from the street, why let them dog-scan it from your front porch? The government argues that a dog is alerted only by illegal contraband, while a thermal imager is set off more generally by “innocent” and “guilty” heat of all kinds coming from a home — whether from grow lights or from, as Justice Scalia noted in the thermal imager case, “the lady of the house” as she “takes her daily sauna and bath.”


In September we saw that both the Dem. and GOP platforms addressed serious criminal justice issues. It was promising. Now, however, in the throes of the presidential campaigns, there is an annoying avoidance of the topic.

Article 3’s Richard Trinick explains in great detail why criminal justice is such a critical issue, and why all parties involved are purposefully avoiding the subject. Here’s a clip:

Many people have written about why the USA’s criminal justice policy is a travesty, focusing on the human cost and the appalling conditions in which so many prisoners are kept, not to mention the problems with capital punishment. This is a hugely significant argument, and one that the candidates should be forced to address, but I am not going to dwell on it here, as other people have already written excellently about it (see related articles). It is probably the most important reason why criminal justice policy should be addressed by the candidates, but given the existing coverage, I want to focus on the other reasons why criminal justice policy is such an important part of domestic policy; and why politicians from both sides of the aisle, and much of the ‘mainstream media’, are so intent on ignoring it.

Reasons why criminal justice policy is so important

1)The biggest issue in this election is the economy and, on a related note, the deficit and the tax more/cut spending debate. For the 2010 fiscal year, prisons cost taxpayers about $63.4 billion, at an average of between $30-50,000 per prisoner (depending upon the state). The numbers vary, but in most states spending on “corrections” costs more than anything except Medicaid and takes 1 in every 14 dollars spent by the states. This is a colossal amount of money that neither candidate appears even to have contemplated reducing.

2)It is an area of policy that disproportionately affects people from ethnic minorities. As just one sobering example, consider the fact that more black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War. In many respects, the current criminal justice policy of the USA is a more effective method of segregation than the Jim Crow laws were. Inequality of all kinds is one of the biggest problems facing the future of the US, and this is the worst example of it.


Reasons why criminal justice policy is ignored

1) It’s politically toxic. Any move to alter the current tough stance on criminal justice is inevitably viewed as being ‘soft on crime’, regardless of how much sense a new policy might make or how much it might reduce crime in the long-run. No politician, especially one running in a race as close as the current match-up, wants to be seen as ‘soft on crime’. For Republicans, “the party of law and order”, it would be sacrilege to even suggest a change in policy. For Democrats, especially Obama, the aim appears to be to avoid looking “weak and liberal” and avoid alienating middle-class white voters. In addition, it lacks appeal — few voters (read ‘people likely to vote in swing states’) care about the issue as they perceive that it does not affect them and it requires hard choices to be made.

2) People don’t like to have to think about it. This relates to the point above about having to make hard choices, but there is more to it. By its very nature, criminal justice is difficult and unpleasant to think about and so most people shy away from it — who wants to think about prison and criminals when there’s the new series of Homeland? The majority of people will have no interaction with the criminal justice system, especially not on the ‘wrong’ side of it, and so they shut their eyes, pretend they cannot see the problem and hope it will go away. The politicians and media know this and cater to the demands of their audiences.

Be sure to read on, it’s a very well-thought-out assessment of the issue.


Mayor Villaraigosa’s immigrant I.D. proposal made it through the City Council meeting Wednesday without any opposition. The council voted unanimously, and will start soliciting pitches from vendors who want to take on implementation of the I.D. card project. (For a bit of back-story on the program, check out WitnessLA’s Tuesday post.)

LA Times’ Catherine Saillant has the story. Here’s a clip:

Opposition to the so-called City Services Card is inevitable because it touches on the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, Councilman Ed Reyes said. But in the end “cooler heads will prevail and understand the humanity of the suggestion,” he said.

The committee voted unanimously to begin soliciting proposals from potential vendors who would implement the program, backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Councilman Richard Alarcon. That won’t happen, however, until a draft proposal is brought before the full council in about three weeks, officials said.

Although no one opposed to the ID cards spoke at Tuesday’s committee hearing, the Granada Hills North Neighborhood Council sent a letter stating that it had voted against the proposal.

Reyes, a member of the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee, said it’s “about time” that Los Angeles residents, regardless of immigration status, have the ability to easily open bank accounts and access city services.

“Los Angeles is a cosmopolitan city with an international economy, Reyes said, and “this card allows people who have been living in the shadows to be out in the light of day.”

The photo ID would include the user’s name, address, date of birth and possibly other identifying information.
It could be used by any resident who lacks acceptable documentation to open a bank account or access city services, such as libraries or work-training programs, officials said.

Besides undocumented immigrants, seniors who no longer drive, the homeless and transgender people would also benefit, officials said, because they often lack official ID as well. City staff said the program won’t cost taxpayers anything because the third-party vendor would charge from $10 to $20 per card, and would also charge a few dollars a month if an applicant chooses to activate a debit card feature.


  • Is a drug-sniffing dog able to sign his name on an application for a judicial search warrant?

    No. I have never heard of a dog that can sign its name.

    Can any untrained person take a trained drug-sniffing dog and use that dog to accurately detect the presence of drugs?

    No. The untrained person will not be able to properly issue commands to the dog and will not be able to properly interpret responses from the dog.

    Can the dog trainer/handler signal his drug-sniffing dog to provide a false positive response?

    I would think so.

    If the Supreme Court sanctions this use of dogs, they will be handing the police a free blanket search warrant to raid any home they want.

    That means any home they suspect may have drugs, but for which they can’t establish probable cause

    AND any home they suspect of any criminal behavior for which they can’t establish probable cause

    AND any home which contains as resident or guest a person whom the police want to subject to the harassment/punishment caused by conducting a raid upon them.

  • If the court allows unrestricted use of drug-sniffing dogs, they will open the court system up to an influx of casual users and low level dealers.

    This will have an insignificant effect on the smuggling and transport of drugs by organized rings and large-scale professional dealers.

    The drug-sniffing dog can’t detect a drug which has been properly handled and sealed. Whether its an amount which fits in the palm of your hand or fills a boxcar – if its properly sealed, the dog can’t detect.

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