The U.S. Supreme Court has been kept busy in its last few sessions deciding a number of criminal cases with implications here in the Sunshine State. In Florida v. Harris, the Court sketched out the circumstances under which a drug sniffing dog’s “alert” gives police probable cause to search a car.

Clayton Harris was driving his truck in Liberty County in June 2006 when he was pulled over by a police officer who noticed that the truck’s tags had expired. K-9 Officer William Wheetley said Clayton was very nervous when he approached the truck, that he was shaking and breathing heavily, and that their was an open beer in the front console. Harris denied Wheetley’s request to search the truck, so Wheetley retrieved Aldo, a German shepherd trained to detect certain narcotics, from his police car. Aldo “alerted” at the driver’s side door, signaling that he smelled drugs there.

Wheetley proceeded to search the car. He didn’t uncover any of the types of drugs that Aldo had been trained to detect, but he did find ingredients commonly used for making methamphetamine: 200 pills of pseudoephedrine, 8,000 matches, hydrochloric acid, antifreeze and iodine crystals stored in a coffee filter. After his arrest, Wheetley admitted that he regularly cooks and uses meth. He was charged with possession of pseudoephedrine for use in making methamphetamine.

While out on bail, Harris was pulled over by Wheetley again, this time for a broken tail light. Aldo again alerted at the driver’s side door, but a subsequent search of the vehicle did not turn up any evidence of drugs.

A trial court denied Harris’s motion to suppress the evidence obtained in the first search arguing that Wheetley did not have probable cause to search the truck. In order to search a car or truck without a warrant, cops must have probable cause to believe that evidence or contraband is in the vehicle. A state appellate court affirmed the ruling, but the Florida Supreme Court later reversed it.

The state’s highest court ruled that the fact that Aldo “alerted” alone was not enough to establish probable cause. Rather, the state had to present evidence of the dog’s reliability and performance history, including training and certification records, explanations of these records and information about training for the person handling the dog, “as well as any other objective evidence known to the officer about the dog’s reliability.”

The case eventually went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the state court’s records production requirement “was inconsistent with the flexible, common-sense standard of probable cause.”

“Probable cause…is a fluid concept – turning on the assessment of probabilities in particular factual contexts – not readily, or even usefully, reduced to a neat set of legal rules,” Justice Elena Kagan explained. Here, the court said the Florida Supreme Court “flouted” this approach by creating a “strict evidentiary checklist” every time on which must be checked off in order to establish probable cause.

While prosecutors should be required to establish a drug dog’s reliability in order to support a probable cause finding, the Court said this can be done in many ways and should not be subject to rigid requirements. “In short, a probable-cause hearing focusing on a dog’s alert should proceed much like any other,” According to Justice Kagan. “The court should allow the parties to make their best case, consistent with the usual rules of criminal procedure.” For example, the Court said a dog’s completion of a “bona fide” training program can itself be enough to provide good reason for trusting its alert.

As a result, the Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling.

Search and seizure issues like this are complicated enough that they often find their way to the nation’s highest court. They can also mean the difference between conviction and acquittal. If you have been charged with a crime in Florida, contact the South Florida criminal attorneys at Anidjar & Levine. We serve clients throughout the region, including in Ft. Lauderdale, Hialeah and Boca Raton.

Related blog posts:

Warrants, Probable Cause and the “Automobile Exception” in Florida – State v. McIntosh

Police Credibility in Florida Drug Cases – Arias v. State

Marijuana Found in Car Pulled Over for Busted Taillight Lands Driver to Prison – Rutledge v. State