US Supreme Court: K-9 Dog Sniff Sufficient to Establish Probable Cause

On February 19, 2013, the Supreme Court decided the case of Florida v. Harris, and held that use of a drug dog to establish probable cause to search a vehicle does not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Facts: Respondent was pulled over by a law enforcement officer for a routine traffic stop.  While speaking to the respondent, the officer noticed that the respondent was becoming increasingly nervous and also observed an open beer can.  Respondent refused the officer’s request to search the vehicle; the officer subsequently executed a sniff test with his trained narcotics dog, Aldo.  The dog alerted at the driver’s side door, leading the officer to determine that he had probable cause to search the vehicle.  The search did not provide anything that the dog was trained to detect, but did reveal ingredients that are used to manufacture methamphetamine.  When the respondent was released on bail he was pulled over by the same officer who again had Aldo do a sniff of the vehicle, this time producing nothing.  The respondent moved to have the evidence from the stop suppressed, arguing that the officer did not have probable cause to search his vehicle based on the dog’s alert.  The trial court held that the officer had probable cause and denied the motion to suppress.  The respondent then entered a no-contest plea, reserving the right to appeal the trial court’s ruling.  After an intermediate state court affirmed, The Florida Supreme Court reversed.

Florida Supreme Court: The Florida Supreme Court held that the officer lacked probable cause to search the defendant’s vehicle under the Fourth Amendment.  The court went on to say that “When a dog alerts, the fact that the dog has been trained, and is certified, is simply not enough to establish probable cause.”  The court held that the State needed to produce a wider array of evidence to demonstrate a dog’s reliability.  The Florida Supreme Court gave several examples: the dog’s training and certification records; an explanation of the meaning of the particular training and certification; field performance records; and evidence concerning the experience and training of the officer handling the dog.

Supreme Court’s Ruling: The Court began by tracing the history of probable cause and establishing the foundation for the Courts decision.  The Court stressed that, in determining whether the State has met the probable cause standard, the Court has consistently looked to the “totality of the circumstances” test.  Foreshadowing its ultimate decision, the Court noted that in Gates, the Court abandoned the old test for assessing the reliability of informant’s tips “because it had devolved into a “complex superstructure of evidentiary and analytical rules.” (1)  The Court continued, describing probable cause as a “fluid concept-turning on the assessment of probabilities in any particular factual context-not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules.”  The Supreme Court determined that this is exactly what the Florida Supreme Court did in its decision, created a strict evidentiary checklist, which requires the state to mark off each item.

Rather than having the “strict evidentiary checklist” that the Florida Supreme Court determined was the best approach, the Supreme Court held that evidence of a dog’s satisfactory performance in a certification or training program can itself provide sufficient reason to trust his alert.  “If a bona fide organization has certified a dog after testing his reliability in a controlled setting, a court can presume that the dog’s alert provides probable cause to search.”

Regarding a probable-cause hearing on a dog’s alert, the Court gave guidance to the lower courts on how these should be administered.  The court should allow the parties to make their best case, consistent with the usual rules of criminal procedure.  After evaluating the proffered evidence to decide what all the circumstances demonstrate; if the State has produced proof from controlled settings that a dog performs reliably in detecting drugs, and the defendant has not contested that showing, then the court should find probable cause.  However, if the defendant has challenged the State’s case, then the court should weigh the competing evidence.  Overruling the Florida Supreme Court test, the Court once again stated that the question is whether all the facts surrounding a dog’s alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonable prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime.

(1)    Illinois v. Gates, 462 U.S. 213, 235 (1983)

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