Doggy Drug Detection Is Reliable, Supreme Court Rules

Posted February 20, 2013 in Crime Editors Picks Your Personal Rights by

German Shepherd dog nose

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In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday ruled that an alert by a trained drug-sniffing dog constitutes probable cause for a police search under most circumstances.

In Florida v. Harris, the court rejected the notion that law enforcement would have to produce a detailed record of a dog’s reliability in order for its detection process to stand up in court, deciding that simple proof of training was enough.

“If a bona fide organization has certified a dog after testing his reliability in a controlled setting, a court can presume (subject to any conflicting evidence offered) that the dog’s alert provides probable cause to search,” says the majority opinion, written by Justice Elena Kagan. “The same is true, even in the absence of formal certification, if the dog has recently and successfully completed a training program that evaluated his proficiency in locating drugs.”

The story began when Clayton Harris was pulled over in Florida in 2006 and a drug dog gave an alert that he had contraband in the car. Basing probable cause on the dog’s indication, police searched the vehicle despite Harris’ objections and found ingredients for making methamphetamines — although none of the specific substances that the dog was trained to detect.

Harris was later pulled over again while on bail and the same dog again gave an alert, although nothing was found in the car in that instance.

He was charged with possessing pseudoephedrine for use in manufacturing methamphetamine after the first incident, but tried to have the evidence thrown out based on the dog’s unreliability. After a no-contest plea and a series of appeals, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the dog’s nose alone didn’t give the officer probable cause to search the car if he couldn’t present comprehensive proof that the animal was accurate, including “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.”

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision, stating that showing a certificate or otherwise proving that the dog was trained was sufficient. “A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test,” Kagan wrote.

Just because drugs aren’t found in a car doesn’t mean that a dog didn’t sniff some remnants of them, or he may have smelled something that the police were unable to find, the court reasoned in giving training greater weight than field performance for the canines.

Criminal defendants still have an opportunity to challenge the dog’s training in court, or challenge the officer’s behavior if they believe he or she gave the dog a “tell” to cause the animal to give a false alert.

Another drug-sniffing dog decision is still pending, with the justices expected to decide if police can bring a dog onto the porch of a house without a warrant, or whether that act is an unconstitutional search.

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