Going to the Dogs: the upcoming Supreme Court case of Florida v. Harris

October 3, 2012 by Paul Kish

Here in Atlanta, in both federal court and in state court criminal cases, we regularly see situations where the police stop a person's vehicle, and walk a drug detecting dog around the car. If the dog "alerts", the police contend they have sufficient grounds, or "probable cause", to search the vehicle. I am currently litigating just such a case in the Georgia Court of Appeals, but the issue turns on whether they had the right to keep the driver at the side of the road long enough so as to let the dog do his thing. This term, the United States Supreme Court will confront a case out of Florida that presents a clear question: whether the police may conduct a warrantless search for drugs based solely on an alert by a drug-sniffing dog without any other evidence of the dog’s reliability so long as the dog has been “trained” or “certified.” The case if Florida v. Harris, and it will be argued in a few weeks.

Here's how the case got to the Supreme Court. In rural Liberty County, a sheriff’s deputy was on patrol with his trusty drug-detecting dog named Aldo. The dog had been trained to detect the illegal drug methamphetamine. The deputy pulled over Clayton Harris, because his truck's license plate had expired. The officer noticed that Harris was shaking badly, and was breathing rapidly — telltale signs, for the officer, that Harris might be on drugs. The officer wanted to search the truck, but Harris refused. The officer then had the dog walk around the truck, and the animal “alerted” to a drug on the door handle of the driver’s side of the truck. With that “alert” as legal justification, the officer searched the interior of the truck’s cab, and found ingredients for making methamphetamine.

Harris was charged with possessing materials for making meth. His very able public defenders argued that the search of the truck’s interior violated the Fourth Amendment because the deputy had no legal basis for conducting such a search. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently agreed, concluding that Aldo’s “alert” to a substance on the truck door handle was not sufficient to justify searching the cab. The state Supreme Court said that an "alert" is not enough by itself to satisfy a court that the dog is properly trained and certified for the detection of a specific illegal drug. Instead, the highest court in Florida held that an “alert” can provide the basis for a search only if the evidence shows how the particular dog was trained, what was done to satisfy an expert that the dog was adequately trained, how the dog had actually performed in “alerting” to drugs in other situations, and how well trained and how experienced was the dog’s police handler.

Florida, most of the various states, and the federal government, are all asking that the U.S. Supreme Court reverse the decision by the Florida Supreme Court. They want a ruling that the fact that a trained and certified dog does make an “alert” should be enough, all by itself, to justify a police officer’s further search of a vehicle for illegal drugs.

Frankly, it appears that the Florida Supreme Court's ruling stands alone. Most states, and virtually all federal courts, hold that an alert by a drug dog is sufficient for searching a vehicle. Some folks in law enforcement call the detector dogs "four-legged probable cause." While we will watch the case closely, it will be a surprise if the U.S. Supreme Court says that anything more is required for a search in this context.