This article discusses a drug-sniffing dog case that the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision on.
The use of drug-sniffing dogs seems commonplace to police work these days, but certain constitutional issues regarding the Fourth Amendment’s protection from unreasonable search and seizure involving drug-sniffing dogs have not yet been resolved. The resolution of these issues is profound for criminal defense purposes. Near the end of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases on the potential limits to police using drug-sniffing dogs. The first dealt with the reasonableness of a warrantless search conducted by drug-sniffing dog at the front door of a private residence, and the second dealt with the qualifications a drug dog should have to justify the reliability–and therefore reasonableness–of the search.
The Court recently ruled on the second case, Florida v. Harris, favoring the state’s argument. Florida v. Harris answered the question of whether a drug-dog search could ever be legal by addressing the standard of credentials a drug dog should possess so that police can rely on the search. In the case, the police dog alerted officers to drugs in a truck stopped for an expired license plate. After the dog’s alert, police searched the truck and found ingredients used to make methamphetamine. Two weeks after the stop, the police stopped the truck again and the dog again alerted police to drugs, but no drugs were found.
The drug dog in Florida v. Harris completed 120 hours of drug detection training two years prior to the stop but had not been recertified in 16 months. Harris challenged the case against him and asked the court to throw out the evidence showing drugs in his truck, arguing the drug dog’s alert was too unreliable to give police probable cause to search. The Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of Harris, explaining in addition to explaining the dog’s certification to detect narcotics in court police also needed to present certification records, performance records, evidence regarding the training of the dog’s trainer and an explanation of those records.
Justice Elena Kagan in the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling said the requirements of the Florida Supreme Court were too onerous. Like all questions about probable cause, Kagan said the issue depends on “whether all the factors surrounding a dog’s alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime.” Justice Kagan explained the state’s requirement of an evidentiary checklist went beyond what was reasonably required and that standard training and certification records memorializing the training are sufficient and more reliable than performance records in which errors could easily be recorded about performance. Therefore, a dog’s satisfactory performance in training is enough to provide sufficient reason to trust the dog’s alert.
Justice Kagan went on to explain that evidence of the dog’s training can be challenged by showing the certification methods were faulty or were sub-standard. Absent a defendant’s challenge and with the state’s demonstration of evidence of the dog’s reliability, a court should find probable cause for the search.
The Court has not yet ruled on the first case, Florida v. Jardines. In that case the Court will decide whether police may use a drug dog to sniff outside homes without a warrant. The Court is expected to rule on the issue later this year.
If you are the subject of criminal charges, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can ensure that police and prosecutors meet their procedural and evidentiary burdens.
Keywords: drug sniffing dog, U.S. Supreme Court case