Michael Doyle

WASHINGTON: Supreme Court justices seemed ready Wednesday to adjust the legal leash on drug-sniffing dogs, in two high-profile cases arising out of Florida.

With a battery of pointed questions, justices voiced skepticism about a Florida Supreme Court ruling that imposed strict criteria for determining when a dog is qualified to help make a drug bust.

At the same time, court conservatives joined liberals in suggesting that a police canine sniffing at the front door of a suspected drug house may be a search that triggers constitutional protections.

“It seems to me crucial that this officer went onto the portion of the house as to which there is privacy, and used a means of discerning what was in that house that should not have been available,” Justice Antonin Scalia said at one point.

The two cases heard separately Wednesday morning will help shape law enforcement agencies’ growing canine dependency. Twenty-four states — including Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Idaho — have sided with Florida law enforcement officials, noting in a legal brief that “drug-detecting canines are one of the essential weapons in the states’ arsenal to combat this illegal traffic.”

While tracking questions can lead court observers astray, a majority of the justices who spoke Wednesday sounded protective of the privacy inherent in a home.

The second case heard Wednesday involved Aldo, a German shepherd who was on patrol the afternoon of June 24, 2006, with his human partner from the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department in Florida’s panhandle. The deputy pulled over a pickup with an expired tag. Aldo alerted, and the deputy found 200 pseudoephedrine pills, which can be used to make methamphetamine.

A divided Florida Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Aldo’s alert was insufficient to show probable cause for a follow-up search, because of questions about the dog’s reliability. The state court spelled out a series of records that law enforcement agencies must be prepared to provide to demonstrate a drug-sniffing dog’s reliability.

State officials call this burdensome, and a number of justices seemed to agree.

“Why is that the right list?” Justice Stephen Breyer asked. “I mean, what in the Constitution requires that list?”