Ohio residents have likely read media stories about large drug seizures being made during vehicle stops after police dogs were alerted to the scent of narcotics, but this kind of reporting may have given law enforcement canines a reputation for reliability that they do not really deserve. The courts have consistently ruled that an alert from a K9 officer gives police the probable cause required to obtain search warrants, or even search vehicles without a warrant, but an increasing body of evidence suggests that this position may have been taken too hastily.
Questions about the reliability of police dogs were highlighted on May 13 when a media outlet in Washington ran a story about a Montana woman who spent a weekend in jail and had her car impounded after a K9 unit alerted during an air sniff. The Ferris County deputy who made the arrest summoned the dog after discovering the woman sleeping behind the wheel. The woman was exhausted, rather than intoxicated, and no drugs were found in her vehicle. Reporters covering the case discovered that the dog involved had alerted to the presence of drugs every time it had sniffed the air around a vehicle. Drugs were only found in 29% of those searches.
Questionable training techniques
The media attention would suggest that this was an isolated case, but incidents like this happen all the time. There have been reports about a police dog in Illinois that alerted during 93% of its air sniffs and a K9 unit in Virginia that indicated drugs were present 74% of the time, which has led many groups calling for criminal law reform to question the way police departments train their dogs. In many cases, the only cars police dogs see during their training contain drugs, which could lead them to believe that controlled substances will be hidden in every vehicle they encounter in the field.
Police officers sometimes coerce drivers into consenting to warrantless searches of their vehicles by threatening to call K9 units to the scene. If you ever find yourself in this situation, an attorney with experience in criminal defense would likely advise you to refuse. A lawyer could also challenge the validity of such a search if the traffic stop was delayed for an unreasonable amount of time in order to summon a police dog to the scene.