Law School Case Brief
Florida v. Harris - 568 U.S. 237, 133 S. Ct. 1050 (2013)
Evidence of a dog’s satisfactory performance in a narcotics certification or training program can itself provide sufficient reason to trust his alert. 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. 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. A defendant, however, must have an opportunity to challenge such evidence of a dog’s reliability, whether by cross-examining the testifying officer or by introducing his own fact or expert witnesses.
Officer Wheetley pulled over respondent Harris for a routine traffic stop. Observing Harris's nervousness and an open beer can, Wheetley sought consent to search Harris's truck. When Harris refused, Wheetley executed a sniff test with his trained narcotics dog, Aldo. The dog alerted at the driver's-side door handle, leading Wheetley to conclude that he had probable cause for a search. That search turned up nothing that Aldo was trained to detect but did reveal pseudoephedrine and other ingredients for manufacturing methamphetamine. Harris was arrested and charged with illegal possession of those ingredients. In a subsequent stop while Harris was out on bail, Aldo again alerted on Harris's truck but nothing of interest was found. At a suppression hearing, Wheetley testified about his and Aldo's extensive training in drug detection. Harris's attorney did not contest the quality of that training, focusing instead on Aldo's certification and performance in the field, particularly in the two stops of Harris's truck. The state trial court denied the motion to suppress, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed. It held that a wide array of evidence was always necessary to establish probable cause, including field performance records showing how many times the dog has falsely alerted. If an officer like Wheetley failed to keep such records, he could never have probable cause to think the dog a reliable indicator of drugs. The State sought certiorari review.
Was the ruling that the state had to, in every case, present an exhaustive set of records, including a log of a dog’s performance in the field, to establish a dog’s reliability proper?
No matter how much other proof the State offered on a dog’s reliability, the Florida Supreme Court (FSC) would have found that the absence of field performance records precluded finding probable cause--the antithesis of a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis. The FSC treated records of a dog’s field performance as the gold standard in evidence when in most cases they had relatively limited import. A dog could alert to a car in which no drugs were found because the drugs were too well hidden or present in quantities too small to locate. The State introduced substantial evidence of Aldo's training and his proficiency in finding drugs. While Aldo’s certification had expired, the Officer Wheetley and Aldo trained four hours each week on exercises designed to keep their skills sharp. Officer Wheetley testified, and written records confirmed, that in those settings Aldo always performed at the highest level. Furthermore, Harris had not challenged any aspect of Aldo's training in the trial court. And, Harris cooked and used methamphetamine on a regular basis; so as Officer Wheetley later surmised, Aldo likely responded to odors Harris had transferred to the car's handle where Aldo alerted. The United States Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the FSC that the state had to, in every case, present an exhaustive set of records, including a log of a dog’s performance in the field, to establish a dog’s reliability.
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