Florida v. Harris: Drug-Sniffing Dogs And Probable Cause

For a police officer to make a warrantless search of a vehicle the officer must have “probable cause” that evidence of a crime will be found, as required by the Fourth Amendment.

In Florida v. Harris the Court discussed when the source of the probable cause is a drug-sniffing dog, and affirmed the rule that such probable cause would be analyzed with the same general totality-of-the-circumstances test that is used to evaluate all probable cause.

“The question – similar to every inquiry into probable cause – surrounding a dog’s alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonable person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime,” wrote Justice Kagan. “A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test.”

Clayton Harris was pulled over by William Wheetley, a K-9 Officer who was on routine patrol in Liberty County, Florida, with his German shepherd, Aldo, who is trained to detect the scent of drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Upon approaching the vehicle Wheetley observed that Harris was visibly nervous and an open beer can in the truck’s console. Wheetley requested consent to search the truck but Harris refused.

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At this point Wheetley retrieved Aldo from the police car and let him approach the truck for a “free air sniff.” Aldo then signaled that he smelled drugs. Based on Aldo’s alert, Wheetley concluded that probable cause existed for a search of the truck.  Wheetley did not find any drugs that Aldo was trained to detect, but did discover materials that are used to make methamphetamine, including, 200 pseudoephedrine pills, antifreeze, hydrochloric acid, and iodine crystals. Harris was arrested, and after being read his Miranda rights admitted to cooking methamphetamine. Harris was charged with possessing materials for use in the manufacture of methamphetamine.

In a second incident Harris was again pulled over by Wheetley and Aldo, this time because the truck had a broken brake light. Aldo sniffed around the truck and signaled that drugs were present. Wheetley searched the truck but found no contraband.

In court Harris argued that the evidence should be suppressed because Aldo’s alert did not constitute probable cause for a search. Wheetley testified as to his and Aldo’s training.  Both had completed 100 + hours of narcotics detection training with separate police departments. In addition, Aldo received a one-year certification from a private company that specializes in training police dogs. Wheetley and Aldo also train four hours a week to hone their skills. Copies of “Monthly Canine Detection Training Logs” backed up testimony that Aldo performed well in training tests where he was sent to sniff buildings and vehicles that either did or did not contain drugs.

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On cross-examination of Wheetley, Harris’s attorney focused on Aldo’s certification and his performance in the field. Aldo’s certification had expired, though under Florida law it was not required in the first place. Wheetley conceded that he did not keep complete logs of Aldo’s performance in actual traffic stops, but only kept a record of alerts that resulted in arrests. Wheetley defended Aldo’s false alerts by claiming that Aldo probably responded to residual odor of methamphetamine left by Harris’s hands on the door handle of the truck.

The trial court denied the motion to suppress, ruling that Wheetley had probable cause to search the truck. A court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.

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The Florida Supreme Court reversed, ruling that there was no probable cause. The court held that to establish probable cause in a dog sniff situation the State must present evidence that “the dog’s training and certification records, an explanation of the meaning of the particular training and certification, field performance records (including any unverified alerts), and evidence concerning the experience and training of the officer handling the dog, as well as any other objective evidence known to the officer about the dog’s reliability.”

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court restated the rule that “a police officer has probable cause to conduct a search when the facts available to him would warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that contraband or evidence of a crime is present.” Finding probable cause is not an exact science. There is no standard of proof for a finding of probable cause, such as proof beyond a reasonable doubt or clear and convincing evidence.  To determine whether probable cause exists the Court looks to the totality of the circumstances, an approach that is the opposite of the test the Florida Supreme Court established.

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The Court went on to slam the Florida test which it labeled as the “antithesis” of the totality-of-the-circumstances test because it required exact evidence and bright-line rules. The Florida test requires comprehensive documentation as to the dog’s reliability and holds that a dog would not be reliable if one piece of documentation is missing. This requirement misses the point of a totality-of-the-circumstances approach, which enables a court to give credibility to certain factors over others when perhaps one factor is especially strong and others are missing.

The Court saw no reason to treat probable cause analysis for drug-sniffing dogs in a different manner from than the totality-of-the-circumstances test used for probable cause analysis of all other evidence. Aldo’s reliability was unquestioned, as evidenced by his substantial training and proficiency in finding drugs, which is outlined above. The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.

Contact ArborYpsi Law at 734-883-9584 or at bernstein@arborypsilaw.com to speak with attorney Sam Bernstein

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