WHEN THE LOCAL drug dog shows up to sniff lockers, cars, and backpacks at Temple City High School in Southern California, senior Jonathan Huynh takes immediate notice. His heart rate jumps, his breathing slows, his hands start to sweat.
But Huynh isn't nervous because he has something to hide. His wariness stems from firsthand knowledge that drug dogs aren't the infallible sniffing machines imagined by the U.S. Supreme Court and much of the public. When Huynh was an eighth-grader at Oak Avenue Intermediate School in Temple City, a drug dog picked out his gym locker during a random search. When Huynh returned to the locker room at the end of class, a school administrator opened his locker in front of him and the rest of his classmates. The detection dog immediately lunged for the backpack and took hold of it, but when the administrator subsequently searched it, he found no drugs or other contraband. When the administrator and the canine team left, all the other students started laughing at Huynh. "I felt completely humiliated," he later wrote on an online message board.
The Temple City Unified School District contracts with a local franchise of a company called Interquest Detection Canines to conduct 17 inspections a year at three schools in its district. Ever since junior high, Huynh and his fellow classmates have lived under the threat of random canine sweeps.
In this respect, they're not that much different from millions of other Americans. Olfactory eavesdropping is a boom industry. "I've heard that there are as many as 18,000 police service dogs working in this country, doing narcotics control, explosives, tracking," says Terry Anderson, president of the National Police Canine Association, an organization that trains and certifies police dogs and their handlers. But while these police dogs and their counterparts in the private sector bury their super-sensitive snouts into our business, who's watching them? Certification is largely optional. "There's only two states in this country that say if you want to have a police dog, these are the criteria you have to meet," says Anderson, who also serves as a police officer in Pasadena, Texas.
While neither the federal government nor most states impose or even suggest standards for selecting, training, or evaluating detection dogs, the highest courts of the land give them plenty of leash when it comes to privacy rights. That started in 1983, when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in U.S. v. Place...