The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that police can use dogs to search for illegal drugs during traffic stops without any probable cause for conducting the search. In a 6-2 ruling, the Court overturned a decision by the Illinois Supreme Court that had reversed the 12-year prison sentence of a man initially pulled over for going six miles per hour over the speed limit but was later found, with the help of drug-sniffing dogs, to be in possession of $250,000 worth of marijuana. The decision has prompted the man’s return to jail and alarmed privacy advocates nationwide.
In a shocking departure from ideological precedent, Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the bench’s most acclaimed champions of civil liberties, defended the majority opinion stating that “A dog sniff conducted during a concededly lawful traffic stop that reveals no information other than the location of a substance that no individual has any right to possess does not violate the Fourth Amendment.” However, Stevens assumes that the dogs are perfectly accurate; if the dog finds drugs, the drugs exist. Considering that police dogs fail about 30 percent of the time, it is statistically inevitable that people will have their privacy invaded and Fourth Amendment protections stripped unjustly.
To law enforcement officials, these incidents might be looked at as honest mistakes. To the individuals being stripped of their Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizures, however, these “honest mistakes” can be quite damaging. Public officials often argue that minimal rights violations are justified when held up against the police’s ability to protect against larger threats such as illicit drugs and terrorism. Unfortunately, the implications of the recent decision are far more than minimal. In their dissent, Justices Ruth Ginsburg and David Souter argued that the court’s decision could easily be used to justify searches of parked cars and pedestrians.
More problematic, though, is how this decision will affect the country’s continued struggle with racial profiling. In the past, pretextual traffic stops for the purpose of conducting searches have been disproportionately targeted at minorities. Drug- sniffing dogs will not be used in all traffic stops, and it is likely that this decision will result in more searches aimed at specific groups.
This decision marks yet another inconsistency in the court’s vacillating precedent on the limits of police searches. In 2001, the court ruled that searches with heat-seeking thermal energy devices were illegitimate. In 1996, however, the Court held in Whren vs. United States that police may perform a search during a routine traffic stop if material visible in the car suggests illicit activity.
The government’s protection of an individual’s right to privacy is fundamental. Given the power of the Internet, new threats to personal privacy are created everyday. It seems very likely that the protection of privacy will be a key issue the court faces during the next several decades. The Court’s recent decision to restrict privacy in what appeared to be a clear 4th Amendment case is troubling. Many past decisions involving privacy issues, such as Roe v. Wade, have relied on a so-called implicit right to privacy rather than the Fourth Amendment’s explicit guarantee of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Controversy over this implicit right to privacy makes it likely that privacy rights will be challenged in upcoming years. The narrow interpretation of privacy shown in the recent decision casts doubt on the Supreme Court’s willingness to continue to protect the privacy rights Americans currently enjoy.