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Supreme Court rules that dog's sniff was up to snuff in roadside search

Supreme Court rules that a signal from a properly trained drug-detecting dog is enough to establish probable cause for a warrantless search of a vehicle during a roadside stop.

By Staff writer / February 19, 2013



The US Supreme Court on Tuesday tackled the tricky issue of when a sniff from a drug-detecting dog is up to constitutional snuff.

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At issue in the case, Florida v. Harris, was whether a deputy sheriff in Florida's Liberty County acted properly in June 2006 when he initiated a warrantless search of a pickup truck after his drug-detecting dog signaled that it sensed the presence of illicit narcotics.

No drugs were found, but the sheriff’s deputy discovered key ingredients to make methamphetamine. The driver, Clayton Harris, was charged with unlawful possession of 200 pseudoephedrine pills for use in manufacturing methamphetamine.

Mr. Harris admitted he was addicted to methamphetamine and that he regularly prepared and used it in his home.

A few weeks later, after being released on bond, Harris was pulled again by the same deputy sheriff working with the same drug-sniffing dog, Aldo.

Again, Aldo signaled or “alerted” the deputy that he sensed the presence of illicit narcotics in Harris’s truck. The deputy searched the truck, and found only an open bottle of liquor, but no drugs.

Harris’s lawyer challenged the lawfulness of the deputy’s warrantless searches of the pickup truck. The lawyer questioned Aldo’s reliability, suggesting that the warrantless searches were improper because Aldo had obviously been mistaken about the presence of drugs.

The trial judge upheld the lawfulness of the search, but the Florida Supreme Court reversed. The state high court held that the deputy lacked the necessary probable cause to search the pickup truck without first obtaining a court-issued warrant.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that K-9 officers in Florida must be able to present evidence of a dog’s performance in the field, including how often the dog had signaled the presence of drugs when none were found.

“The fact that a dog has been certified and trained is simply not enough to establish probable cause,” the Florida high court said.

On Tuesday, the US Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling 9 to 0 that a signal from a properly trained drug-detecting dog would be enough to establish probable cause for a law enforcement officer to undertake a warrantless search of a vehicle during a roadside stop.

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