Police officers in Maryland and around the country often call K-9 units to the scene when narcotics searches are conducted because they have been trained to recognize the scent of even small quantities of illegal drugs. Police dogs are respected by law enforcement and the public alike, but that may be because only their successes are reported. A team of investigators from a Kentucky newspaper examined the results of 139 K9 searches conducted in 2017, and they discovered that drugs were only discovered about half of the time.
When police dogs did discover drugs, they often found only trace amounts of marijuana. They also frequently alerted to the odor of marijuana that had been smoked earlier. The reporters found a lack of consistency in the ways these discoveries were recorded. Some K-9 handlers considered searches successful even if only small amounts of drugs were found. Other handlers had much more rigorous standards.
The courts also seem to be convinced that police dogs are extremely efficient, but there are notable exceptions. When the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that K-9 searches do not violate the Fourth Amendment, Justice David Souter wrote in his dissenting opinion that infallible narcotics sniffing dogs are a “legal fiction.” The nation’s highest court came down on the side of police dogs again in 2013 when the justices ruled that K-9 units can remain on duty regardless of how they perform on the job as long as they undergo an annual certification.
While the Supreme Court has ruled that searches conducted by drug-sniffing dogs do not violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, the justices have also ruled that police officers may not prolong traffic stops just to give K-9 units time to reach the scene. This is why experienced criminal defense attorneys may study timelines carefully when their clients are accused of committing drug offenses and evidence against them was discovered by police dogs. When the facts suggest that traffic stops were delayed unreasonably, attorneys could seek to have drug charges dismissed.