Tag: Florida v. Harris

Clever Hans vs. the Fourth Amendment

In the early 1900s, the German public was fascinated by a mathematical Mr. Ed named Clever Hans, an Orlov Trotter horse that seemed to be capable of counting, doing basic arithmetic, and even solving elementary word problems—which, lacking the dexterity to grasp a number two pencil, it would answer by stamping its hooves. Eventually, of course, it was proven that Hans was doing nothing of the sort: the horse was perceptive rather than clever, and had been picking up on subtle, subconscious cues from his handler that let him know when to begin stamping and when (having arrived at the correct answer) he should stop.

A century later, academic researchers have shown that even well-trained drug-sniffing dogs are subject to the “Clever Hans Effect,” often alerting to non-existent drugs or explosives in locations where their human handlers have been falsely told they were present. Nor are those findings strictly academic. A recent analysis by reporters at the Chicago Tribune found that field records showed that drug-sniffing dogs produced a disturbingly high level of false positives: in only 44 percent of cases where dogs alerted did a subsequent search turn up contraband. Their success rate was even lower when it came to certain minorities: when dogs alerted on a Hispanic driver, only 27 percent of ensuing searches found any drugs, suggesting that the pooches may be picking up on their handlers’ subconscious bias, effectively legitimizing a form of racial profiling.

All this should make the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision today in Florida v. Harris disappointing to anyone who cares about the Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. Overturning a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, the decision holds that a well-trained drug dog’s alert during a traffic stop generally provides probable cause for a warrantless search of the vehicle—even though, as in this case, the dog repeatedly alerted at a car that turned out not to contain any of the chemicals it had been trained to detect. Urging the need for a “flexible” standard, the Court saw no need for police to maintain or provide any record of a dog’s reliability in the field—such as a count of false positives—and even suggested that apparent “false positives” might not be errors at all, since a dog might be picking up “residual odors” from drugs that had previously been in contact with the vehicle. Even if that’s true, however, it’s not clear why it cuts in the government’s direction here: if the dogs are that sensitive, it seems like an additional reason to doubt that an alert provides probable cause to believe contraband is currently present.

The bigger problem, however, is that the controlled conditions in which dogs are evaluated don’t typically match field conditions very well: the handlers there often know where on the test course drugs are located—and even when they don’t, have no incentive to want the dog to alert at any particular location, which removes those subconscious signals from the equation. Bizarrely, the Court nevertheless held that the “better measure of a dog’s reliability… comes away from the field, in controlled testing environments.” Worse, the opinion also provides police deparments with an added perverse incentive to avoid collecting data on the real-world reliability of their sniffers: while a dog’s alert provides prima facie probable cause for a search, the Court held, defendants must be given an opportunity to challenge the reliability of a particular search in court—with field performance as one potential grounds for challenge. But, of course, if that’s the case, keeping records of false positives can only serve to give defendants grounds to invalidate a search that would otherwise be presumed valid. In effect, then, the Court has handed police what may well be a blank check for pretextual searches, while discouraging the collection of data that might prove that’s what they’ve done.

The Fourth Amendment in the Supreme Court This Week

Prior to the development of trade and commerce, movable property was “not esteemed of so high a nature, nor paid so much regard to by the law,” Blackstone tells us in his commentaries on the laws of England. Such property in transit was routinely confiscated by authorities or tariffed at exorbitant rates.

When commercial relations expanded, the quantity and value of personal property increased, and the law “learned to conceive different ideas of it.” Legal protection for movable property increased.

In parallel to the growth of commerce in movables centuries ago, commerce in information is on the rise today. It may be time to “conceive different ideas of it” as well—different ideas that accord information similar protection. This is what a group of amici have encouraged the Supreme Court to do in a brief on an important privacy case being argued this week.

In Clapper v. Amnesty International, the Gun Owners Foundation, Gun Owners of America, Inc., the U.S. Justice Foundation, the Downsize D.C. Foundation, DownsizeDC.org, and the Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund have argued that the Court should recognize a property interest in confidential communications. Doing so would more clearly establish the standing of the respondents in this case to challenge the global wiretapping program Congress established in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.

William J. Olson, lead counsel on the brief, articulated the issues well in an email distributing it:

Our amicus brief in the Clapper case extrapolates from the court’s holding in Jones and identifies the property interests at stake in this case as confidential communications that are critical to the practice of law and of the enterprise of journalism. Using a property analysis, the citizens in Clapper have a protectable property interest in their electronic communications as they do in their written communications. Thus, even though plaintiffs are not “targeted” by the Government, the Government’s contention that their search and seizure of plaintiffs’ communications is only “incidental” is unavailing.

Jones v. United States, of course, is the case decided in January, in which government agents tracked a suspect’s car for four weeks using a GPS device without a valid warrant. The Supreme Court found unanimously that this violated the Fourth Amendment. My article in the most recent Cato Supreme Court Review (2011-12) analyzes the case, and you can get a taste of that analysis in the most recent Cato Policy Report (September/October 2012).

I also discussed the Fourth Amendment status of communications in the Cato Institute’s brief in Florida v. Jardines, which is also being argued in the Supreme Court this week. The Court found Fourth Amendment protection for postal mail in an 1877 case, but stumbled when faced with the next iteration of communications technology.

In the year this Court decided Ex Parte Jackson, both Western Union and the Bell Company began establishing voice telephone services. Gerald W. Brock, The Second Information Revolution 28 (Harvard University Press, 2003). Now, instead of written messages in the post, representations of the human voice itself began moving across distance, at light speed, in a way few people understood. This is the technology this Court confronted in Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).

The Court handled this technological development poorly. Chief Justice William Taft fixed woodenly on the material things listed in the Fourth Amendment’s search and seizure clause. Wiretapping had not affected any of the defendants’ tangible possessions, he found, so it had not affected their Fourth Amendment rights. Olmstead, 277 U.S. at 464. In dissent Justice Butler noted how “contracts between telephone companies and users contemplate the private use” of telephone facilities. “The communications belong to the parties between whom they pass,” he said. Olmstead, 277 U.S. at 487 (Butler, J., dissenting). Cf. Ex Parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1877) (“Letters and sealed packages … are as fully guarded from examination and inspection … as if they were retained by the parties forwarding them in their own domiciles.”).

Florida v. Jardines is not a communications case. The issue is whether the sniff of a trained narcotics-detection dog at the front door of a house is a Fourth Amendment search requiring probable cause. Cato’s brief invites the Court to dispense with the unworkable “reasonable expectation of privacy” test, using the plain meaning of “search” instead.

Black’s law dictionary defines “search” as “looking for or seeking out that which is otherwise concealed from view.” Smells that only trained dogs can detect are indeed otherwise concealed from humans.

Familiar though ordinary pet dogs are, a trained dog is a chromatograph. The Court should follow the Fourth Amendment’s language and precedents like Kyllo v. United States to find that a drug-dog’s sniff is a search.

A companion to Jardines, Florida v. Harris, is being argued the same day. That case will examine the sufficiency of drug-dogs as evidence of wrongdoing, an issue that has not received careful examination in the past.

So it’s a big week for the Fourth Amendment in the Supreme Court. Stay tuned for developments.