Lee Davis: Supreme Court Addresses Whether Drug Dog Sniffs Are Up To Snuff

Friday, February 22, 2013 - by Lee Davis
Lee Davis
Lee Davis

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in Florida v. Harris that prosecutors are not required to present evidence detailing the stellar records of police dogs before their results can be used in court. The ruling, written by Justice Elena Kagan, said that courts should subject sniff tests by drug dogs to the same scrutiny given to other issues that police use to demonstrate probable cause prior to a search, and no more.

Kagan, writing for a unanimous Court, said that the question should be whether all the facts surrounding the dog’s sniff alert would lead a reasonably prudent person to believe that a search would turn up evidence of a crime.

The ruling by the Supreme Court overturns an earlier decision by the Florida Supreme Court about a drug dog named Aldo. Aldo had been trained by police in Liberty County, FL to sniff for marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and methamphetamine. During a routine traffic stop in 2006, Aldo gave a signal to his handler that he detected something in the truck.

A search was performed by officers and 200 loose pseudoephedrine pills, 8,000 matches, a bottle of hydrochloric acid, antifreeze and iodine were discovered. In combination these ingredients make methamphetamine, but individually they are not things Aldo was trained to detect. The man was arrested and charged and later appealed the issue asking that a judge throw out the evidence obtained during the search given that the defense claimed Aldo’s search was not a sufficient basis for probable cause to search the vehicle.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the defendant, saying that the police lacked probable cause to search the truck. The Florida Court claimed that prosecutors should have to present evidence of training, certification records, field performance records and other objective evidence concerning a drug dog’s abilities and experience.

The Supreme Court disagreed, voting unanimously to reverse the Florida high court. The Court said that such a lengthy laundry list of documents are not needed to support the reliability of a drug sniffing dog.

The Court, in an odd coincidence, is preparing to release a second opinion concerning drug-sniffing dogs. The second case involves officers who brought a police dog up to a private residence. The issue for the justices to decide is whether judges may issue search warrants for private residences when a drug-sniffing dog outside the home reacts as if it smells drugs inside.

To read the full opinion, click here.


(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at lee@davis-hoss.com or at 266-0605.)

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