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Florida Supreme Court Reverses Dog Sniff Decision at U.S. Supreme Court's Direction - Harris v. State

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases involving dog sniffs as evidence—both of interest to Florida criminal defense attorneys like me. One was Florida v. Jardines, in which the U.S. Supreme Court said police need a warrant to use a drug-sniffing dog directly outside the front door of someone’s home. I wrote about that case when it happened, but I did not note the other dog-sniffing case, Florida v. Harris, which the Florida Supreme Court just reconsidered on remand. In that case, the Florida high court had suppressed the evidence found after a dog sniff of the car of Clayton Harris, reversing lower courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed again, saying dogs’ certification and training are adequate to establish reliability, and thus can support a finding of probable cause to search the vehicle.

Clayton Harris was driving through Liberty County, Florida, when he was pulled over for expired tags by a canine officer. The officer noticed that Harris seemed nervous and also had an open container of beer in the truck. Harris refused consent to search, so the officer had his dog, Aldo, sniff around the perimeter of the truck. Aldo alerted to the handle of the driver’s side door. The officer then searched the vehicle and found ingredients for making methamphetamine. Harris was charged with possession of pseudoephedrine with intent to make meth. About two months later, the same officer pulled Harris over. Aldo again alerted to the door handle, but a search turned up nothing except an open container of alcohol. Harris moved to suppress the evidence at his trial stemming from the first stop, but the trial court and appeals court both denied this.

The Florida Supreme Court reversed, saying the state should produce field records to determine a dog’s reliability. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In a unanimous ruling, the court said the Florida test created a strict evidentiary checklist that went against the established “totality of the circumstances” approach to seeing whether police have probable cause for a search. The Florida approach would require state’s attorneys to introduce all of the dog’s prior hits and misses into evidence, the court said, and any missing records could prevent the court from finding probable cause, regardless of what the rest of the records said. Furthermore, the Supreme Court wrote, field records are not infallible; records from training and certification standards are better. The record in this case shows that Aldo had enough training and testing to support a finding of probable cause, the court said. Thus, when the Florida Supreme Court reconsidered the case, it withdrew its prior opinion and upheld the Florida appeals court.

Though Aldo’s apparent failure in the second search shows that dog sniffs are not infallible, the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be comfortable allowing courts to assume that they are, and conduct searches on that basis despite the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. Because I defend people accused of serious crimes, I know a lot could depend on this ruling. Finding something in the defendant’s possession is sometimes all that’s needed to prove a crime; drug crimes are like this, as well as the offense of felon in possession of a firearm. In other cases, a search can lead to further investigation. As a result, I make sure to challenge any search that I believe violated my clients’ constitutional rights.

Based in Miami Seltzer Mayberg, LLC, represents clients in South Florida and across the state who are facing criminal charges. We answer the phone 24 hours a day and seven days a week, because we know police don’t stop making arrests after business hours. Call us today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email for a free consultation.

Similar blog posts:

Police May Not Use Drug Sniffing Dogs Outside Front Doors, Supreme Court Rules – Florida v. Jardines

Police May Not Use Drug-Sniffing Dogs to Randomly Check Homes, High Court Rules

One-Week Delay Between Suspicious Behavior and Warrantless Search Was Too Long – U.S. v. Valerio

Categories: Criminal Defense
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