On February 19, 2013, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Florida v. Harris, holding that a police officer had probable cause to search the Defendant’s truck based upon a drug sniffing dog’s alert.   

K-9 Officer William Wheetley pulled over Clayton Harris’ truck for an expired license plate.  Officer Wheetley asked Harris for consent to search the truck after observing an open beer can in the cup holder and a “visibly nervous” Harris.  Upon Harris’ refusal, Aldo, Officer Wheetley’s drug sniffing K-9, conducted a “free air sniff”, alerting to the driver’s-side door handle.  Officer Wheetly then searched the truck and found ingredients for manufacturing methamphetamine.  Harris was then named in an indictment alleging possessing pseudoephedrine for use in manufacturing methamphetamine.

While out on bail, Harris was pulled over, again by Officer Wheetley, for a broken brake light.  Aldo conducted another “free air sniff” and again alerted to the driver’s side door handle. However, when Officer Wheetley searched the truck again this time he “discovered nothing of interest.”

Harris moved to suppress the evidence found during Officer Wheetley’s first search, arguing that Aldo’s alert was insufficient to establish probable cause.  After Officer Wheetley’s testimony regarding his and Aldo’s extensive training, the trial court concluded that Officer Wheetley had probable cause to search Harris’ truck and his motion to suppress was denied. 

On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court reversed, holding that “Officer Wheetley lacked probable cause to search Harris’s vehicle under the Fourth Amendment.”

The Florida Supreme Court concluded that the State needed to produce a wider array of evidence in order to demonstrate Aldo’s reliability, including but not limited to, the dog’s training, certification records, field performance reviews and the handler’s experience and training. 

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.  Justice Elena Kagan delivered the Court’s unanimous opinion holding that the Florida Supreme Court’s decision is “inconsistent with the flexible common-sense standard of probable cause.”

The Court held that the proper probable cause inquiry is,

“…whether all the facts surrounding a dog’s alert, viewed through the lens of common sense, would make a reasonably prudent person think that a search would reveal contraband or evidence of a crime.  A sniff is up to snuff when it meets that test.”

 

The decision in Florida v. Harris is the first of two dog sniff cases that were argued before the Supreme Court in October 2012.  The other, Florida v. Jardines, is still pending and focuses on whether the police must obtain a warrant prior to a “sniff” of a home’s doorstep. 

If you or someone you care about has questions regarding search and seizure law and/or the police’s use of drug sniffing dogs, please contact attorney Michael C. Hennenberg to schedule a consultation.