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Drug dog rules from high court

Challenges to drug dog searches are as common as the canines themselves.

In a case of first impression, the Supreme Court of Virginia today lays down the law for admissibility of evidence obtained as a result of an alert by a narcotics detection dog.

A dog’s positive alert establishes probable cause for a vehicle search and the evidence can come in after a proper foundation showing the dog was sufficiently trained to be reliable in detecting narcotics.

Courts should look to the dog’s “training and experience, as well as a proven track record of previous alerts to the existence of illegal narcotics.”

The prosecution doesn’t necessarily have to show “specific certifications,” or the “results of field testing,” the high court said. But if the dog’s qualifications are challenged, a judge can consider “any relevant evidence” to determine whether the commonwealth met its burden to show the dog’s reliability.

Applying these principles in Jones v. Commonwealth, Justice Leroy F. Millette Jr. upheld admission of drugs in a case after the dog’s police handler said he had made over 50 marijuana arrests with his dog alone. The officer conceded the Hampton police department did not perform “backwards checks” to quantify the number of times the dog correctly alerts in the field.

By Deborah Elkins

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