Do Alerts By Certified Drug-Sniffing Dogs Establish Probable Cause For A Search?

In taking a case challenging the Florida Supreme Court’s decision holding that a certified drug-sniffing dog’s alert was insufficient to establish probable cause for police to search a defendant’s car, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide if the Florida high court ignored established precedent.

The petitioner in the matter, the Attorney General of Florida, argues that the Florida Supreme Court violated established U.S. Supreme Court precedent (United States v. Place and Illinois v. Caballes) that a sniff alert by a “well-trained narcotics detection dog” establishes probable cause for a search.

“In its complete disregard of this court’s consistent interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, the Florida Supreme Court has invalidated the usefulness of dogs to law enforcement and society as a crime fighting tool to sniff out illegal contraband,” wrote the Florida AG in the cert petition (PDF) to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case (Florida v. Harris) involved a man whose car was searched by a police officer after a drug-sniffing dog exhibited a response which the officer interpreted as meaning there were certain drugs in the car. Although none of the specific drugs for which the dog, Aldo, had been trained to detect (marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, crack cocaine and ecstasy) were in the defendant’s car, constituent elements of methamphetamine, pseudoephedrine specifically, were in his car, and the defendant was later arrested and charged with possession of pseudoephedrine with intent to use it to manufacture methamphetamine. The defendant argued that his arrest was the result of an illegal search.

Court documents indicated that “Aldo is not trained to detect … pseudoephedrine. Although [the police officer who handles Aldo] testified that pseudoephedrine is a precursor of meth, there was no testimony on whether a dog trained to detect and alert to meth would also detect and alert to pseudoephedrine.”

The Florida Supreme Court reasoned that “because a dog cannot be cross-examined like a police officer on the scene whose observations often provide the basis for probable cause to search a vehicle, the State must introduce evidence concerning the dog’s reliability.”

Although Aldo had been trained and certified to detect certain drugs, the Florida Supreme Court ultimately held that “evidence that a dog has been trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is insufficient to establish the dog’s reliability for purposes of determining probable cause.” The court further relied upon an appellate court’s decision which concluded that “an officer who knows that his dog is trained and certified can only suspect that a search based on a dog’s alert will yield contraband, and mere suspicion cannot justify a search.”

The U.S. Supreme Court also took up another similar case from Florida pertaining to whether a drug-detecting dog’s sniff outside a person’s home establishes probable cause for police to search that home.

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